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Beating Obama’s Rating System

August 27, 2013

As oft quoted in this blog, “What Gets Measured Gets Done”… and with Obama’s new plan for rating colleges Business Insider writer Walter Hickey contends you can be certain that colleges will do whatever it takes to get their ratings higher. Hickey uses  examples of how colleges manipulate the complex US News and World Report algorithm to illustrate that small tweaks like paying for entrants to take additional SATs can increase the ratings. When everyone is playing the same game, the differences in ratings eventually become inconsequential… but their seeming precision (after all they ARE based on complicated formulae) leads journalists and the public to believe that a change in ratings is cause for either celebration or concern.

As indicated in an earlier post on this issue, the unintended consequences are my biggest concern. If low costs are a premium, adjuncts and MOOCs will increase, compensation will stagnate, and the quality of instruction at colleges will inevitably suffer. If earnings of future graduates is a premium, humanities departments, social science departments, and education departments will wither while business, health, and STEM departments will flourish.

A final unforeseen consequence of cost containment: administrative and support staff will be diminished at colleges at the cost of quality. As a public school administrator for 35 years, 29 of which were as Superintendent, I envied the administrative staff that the local private boarding schools, Community Colleges, and State colleges and universities had and initially thought their staffs were bloated. But as public schools added de facto 24/7 responsibility for students and more reporting requirements it became clear that more Deans, more support staff, and more administrative firepower was needed in the offices of public education if we ever hoped to achieve the kind of accountability the public desired. Adding administrative and support staff, however, was challenging even in the best of times and was the first thing to fall by the wayside when budgets tightened. The need  for these services NEVER diminished, however, and as a result a vicious cycle was created where schools could never meet the public expectations of low cost and personal support for students. As colleges strive to reduce overhead and “game the ratings”, look for more and more of these “superfluous” positions to be eliminated. The services they provide cannot be measured as easily as dollars and cents.

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