Was the college you attended -- and, hopefully, graduated from -- a good deal? And what about the college your son/daughter attended, or is attending?
No, it’s not a trick question.
On Thursday, President Obama proposed, as The Times reported, “a new rating system that would reward universities that provide better value for students’ tuition dollars”:
By 2018, the Department of Education would seek to use that rating system to reward colleges providing the best value, allocating larger grants to universities that see better outcomes.
Such a program would “empower students and families to make good choices,” Obama said, while ensuring that tax dollars weren’t use to subsidize enrollment at universities where students weren’t graduating at a high rate.
Hmmm. Why do I get a funny feeling that this is a concept that just struck a dad with two daughters who will be choosing colleges soon?
Not that it’s so crazy, really. We already have lots of ratings for schools, the most famous perhaps being U.S. News & World Report’s rankings (those are the ones moms and dads check) and Playboy’s Top 10 Party Schools (those are the ones, uh, more attractive to the prospective scholars).
Now, the administration says the new system wouldn't be like those others:
“Unlike some of the existing college-rankings systems, these are ratings, not rankings,” said James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “There's not going to be an attempt to distinguish, for example, between the 23rd and 24th best university. Instead, the idea is to give students some guidance about which colleges are creating value and which are not.”
Which is their idea. But who knows what consumers will make of it?
Picking a college in somewhat the same way one would pick out a new car, big-screen TV or mattress seems -- oh, I don’t know, a long way from Socrates?
When I attended school -- no, I didn’t have Socrates; he had chugged the dreaded hemlock at a kegger a few short years before I got there -- I had based my choice on a simple rating system: It was the best one I could afford. Tuition was $425, as I recall. Oh, and being a state school, it had to take me because I had a high school diploma. So no, it wasn’t Harvard or Stanford.
Also, it seemed a better choice than Door No. 2, which was a one-year tour of a place called Vietnam.
And you know what? I graduated. I went on to graduate school. I got a job. That job became a career. And I even can still recall some of the stuff I was taught.
So, was it a good value? With the benefit of hindsight, I would say yes.
One of the things I do remember my professors saying, though, was that college was not a trade school. College, one said -- and this has stuck with me -- was usually your last chance to immerse yourself in learning, just for the sake of learning.
Parents paying through the nose for their kids’ college today probably don’t think that way. Students worried about their futures in the job market might not either. For them, Obama’s proposed ratings could be just the ticket: Choose this school; major in this major; get a good job; live happily ever after.
But what the ratings will miss are the intangibles of the college experience. A college isn’t a new car. It’s life. It’s growing up. It’s falling down, making mistakes, learning from them, without mom or dad to help. It’s that one class, that one professor, that changes you forever, even though that class might be Great English Poets of the 18th Century.
So go ahead, Education Department, and rate the schools. It’s not a terrible idea.
But don’t be surprised, Mr. President, if your daughters prefer the Playboy ratings.
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