It’s been on our radar

The White House released it’s much anticipated plan (read the official White House College Ratings FAQs Here) to tie financial aid to college performance, a plan that has been on the radar of most everyone in higher education since at least 2012 and the President’s State of the Union address and subsequent fact sheet on, “keeping college affordable.”

[su_quote cite=”President Barack Obama” url=”http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/01/27/fact-sheet-president-obama-s-blueprint-keeping-college-affordable-and-wi”]“Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid… States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.”[/su_quote]

The plan released this morning (Friday Dec 19, 2014) follows this directive to the letter in identifying the three objectives of the President’s plan:

1. Tie financial aid to college performance (release rankings before Aug 2015)

2. Challenge states to utilize these rankings to determine funding of state and public institutions

3. Hold students and colleges that receive federal aid accountable for “making progress toward a degree.”

 

Access, Affordability, and Outcomes.

The new ratings system has yet to be developed in full, but intends to establish ratings around three key metric categories: access, affordability, and outcomes.  Having invested the past three years in the development of our STEM Jobs Approved Colleges benchmark assessment, we can attest to the value of establishing standards that create better ties between academic outcomes and career outcomes.  We can also attest to the significant challenge in obtaining adequate data and creating a valid scoring methodology that delivers useful information to the audience (students and parents), while providing Colleges with a cohesive framework on which to compare and measure their own progress and performance.

The mission of STEM Jobs and our development and release of  our STEM Jobs Approved College (and soon Employer) ratings is centered on inspiring students to pursue STEM education that leads to high growth careers.  Our ratings are fundamentally about positive messaging, providing benchmarks and identifying schools that are doing well while providing colleges with a blue print of best practices around which to focus their key activities that drive outcomes.

The shortcomings inherent in the federal model (albeit not fully realized or defined at present) lie in the fundamentally punitive nature of the grading scale proposed and the lack of a discernible model to facilitate shared practices that lead to improved outcomes.  Additionally, the considerable scope of data required to adequately achieve these ratings (a point brought up in a number of recent articles) remains a key issue for implementation.  One would expect an ongoing and lengthy debate over weightings, criteria, measures, etc… likely untethered from the input of students and parents.

 

Recognizing the factors that underly school mission and student intent.

Key to the development of our own system for rating the activities that lead to outcomes in STEM careers, is the recognition of two important factors:  What are students looking to receive from their educational investment, and what is the fundamental mission of the institution.  In our own words, “Every school has a primary mission—for some it’s research, for others it’s academic integrity, and for others community. For these [STEM Jobs Approved Colleges] schools it’s preparing students for success after graduation in STEM careers.”  The government provides billions in funding through student loans and grants …. and already holds institutions accountable in a number of ways through reporting and operational requirements and constraints.  It makes sense that additional accountability would be linked to outcomes.  Yet, the government also provides billions of dollars in research funding to universities for cultural sustainment, innovation, scientific exploration, and product development … much of which has little to no immediate connection with preparing students for careers upon graduation.  And many students pursue higher education because of these factors … knowingly and willingly.

A ratings system that improves decision making without significant and undeserved punitive outcomes is critical to sustaining the incredible educational culture and opportunity represented in the US higher education system.  To this end we have submitted some of our own recommendations to the Department of Education, which reflect the principles that drive our own STEM Jobs Approved Colleges ratings system.

Summarizing our recommendations

1. Address the growing gap between secondary and post-secondary education:  College relationships with secondary academic institutions has direct impact on student degree selection, preparation and successful completion.

2. Address the long-term gap between post-secondary institutions and employers:  College career offices face the steepest challenge on campus when it comes to  fighting for budget and resource allocation.  Collecting placement rates should help, but colleges are currently ill equipped to bridge the employment gap — which is just as much the fault of employers who rarely engage with colleges in curriculum development that connects degree programs to jobs.

3. Balance high growth against high demand occupations with an eye on workforce projections:  Preparing students for jobs that pay well today is by no means a solid workforce development strategy.  Entrepreneurism is left out, skilled trades that are changing dramatically are left out, and emerging occupations and skill requirements are left out.

4. Reward success while empowering the whole system: Higher education is still a privilege and not a right … it is an investment and should be treated as such.  Yet it is also a foundational underpinning of an advanced society and the key to economic and cultural advancement and innovation.  Narrowing the field of options on a macro scale is likely to bring greater harm to an education system already under fire rather then broadening access. Which leads to our final point:

5.  Recognizing and rewarding the unique mission of institutions through the sharing of best practices:  The competitive nature and limited scope of the measures presented is a fundamental and dynamic shift in American Higher Education.  Accountability and outcomes are undeniably needed, but our analysis suggests that the trajectory of the current standards (barebones as they are) aims to undercut the ability of academic institutions to offer unique opportunities, to test and develop innovative approaches to education, and ultimately to improve the targeted measures in any meaningful way.

 

To echo the President of one of our own STEM Jobs Approved Colleges (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal),

[su_quote cite=”President Clayton Spencer, Bates College” url=”http://www.wsj.com/articles/obama-spells-out-college-ranking-framework-1418965261″]“You just cannot compare [the broad variety of schools] coherently,” said Bates College President Clayton Spencer. “You need to compare them in a mission-specific way.”[/su_quote]

We’d love to hear your comments, questions and concerns.  And please check out our 2015 STEM Jobs Approved Colleges!