Friday, March 15, 2013

The Real Problem with the College Scorecard

There is an ongoing and reasonably interesting debate about the Obama Administration's College Scorecard that I'd like to weigh in on, in order to draw out what's gone unsaid.

On one side of the debate are a set of elite college presidents who think the Scorecard's narrow focus on economic returns to the degree miss the mark; the college-going decision should be about more than getting a job. For example, Harvard President Drew Faust writes that "the focus in federal policy making and rhetoric on earnings data as the indicator of the value of higher education will further the growing perception that a college degree should be simply a ticket to a first job, rather than a passport to a lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change...Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future."

On the other side are people like the Brookings Institution's Beth Akers, who argue that financial returns are critical to the assessment of whether college is worthwhile, especially for people without substantial family wealth, and that providing more information on economic returns is therefore important to influencing the college-going decision.

Both camps are partially right, in my view, and yet both are missing some critical points as well.

First, it is clear that college has multiple meanings and purposes for all students -- students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds seek access to a "lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth, and change" just as other students do.  They are not aiming merely at a "first paycheck" -- in fact, if we present them with information on returns from the first paycheck, we won't be showing much economic return at all, since the payback to a bachelor's degree accrues over a lifetime, with the real value often not readily apparent until one's 30s or even 40s.  The economic returns come mainly from job stability and retention, not the initial paychecks. 

But try telling that to an 18 year old who simply wants a better life for herself, and sees college as the way to do it.  The first step in that process, from her angle, is to get a degree that gets her employed.  The upward path to social mobility, wherein she is employed longer and more consistently, and also has the knowledge and desire to bring her own children into postsecondary education--that's far down the road.  And that's why Akers is right that this sort of information is valuable.

However, the main problem with the College Scorecard approach lies in its deceptively simple approach to the challenge.  Even though the people creating it probably know that it's just a teeny tiny part of the fix, its mention in the President's State of the Union and attention it is getting reinforces a common perception that the college cost problem is mainly informational.  Informational problems are fundamentally attributed to individual deficiencies rather than institutional or structural actions, and they are addressed in that manner.  The College Scorecard equips the "student-consumer" so that they can make a "rational choice" in the face of a rich competitive marketplace.   This framework is deeply problematic.  Education is not a good like a car or a home.  It means far more to people, and has transformative powers that other goods do not provide.   The fundamental problem is that colleges and universities have been given strong incentives to act like businesses instead of sites of education, and this is magnified by the Scorecard.

A college education is a social good that actualizes the potential of all who enjoy it.  I think President Obama knows this.  He knows that a community comprised of college-educated parents feels and acts differently than one with less education.  Given this, we cannot and should not address the college attainment problem in this country one person at a time by providing scorecards of information.  We need our leadership to insist on a national conversation about social priorities, and insist on approaches to education that are fundamentally democratic-- and therefore public--and are socially just.   We have to insist that a focus on equity is not only required but is more important than a focus on efficiency, since cost is not the only way to assess value, and when we say that it is, we prioritize efforts that keep the poor poor.

I am not naive-- the schooling system we have today reflects the state of our economic life, and the College Scorecard is merely a symptom of that status quo.  But with each policy decision comes a set of choices, and in his last term, President Obama has the opportunity to initiate important changes in our economic life by rejecting the notion that the advantages held by the 1% trickle down to the rest of us, that the consumerism which suits them so well serves our interests too, and that our college opportunities should be guided by the same approach that their families embrace.   Helping college opportunities achieve their potentially liberating ends requires leveraging governmental resources to pursue the provision of a free public education in which the value of college is clearly stated, provided by society to all of its membership.