An Honor Roll Not A Watch List For Colleges

An Honor Roll Not A Watch List For Colleges

Members of​ Congress on the House committee on education have come up with an​ absolute bonehead idea: to​ publish a​ "watch list" of​ schools that have increased tuition at​ rates higher than inflation.

I am surprised when members of​ the House speak of​ reigning in​ college costs with measures such as​ this, when they fail to​ do the same for health care. I am sure the list of​ hospitals that have raised charges beyond inflation would be longer than the number of​ bad-behaving colleges.

What will a​ watch list do? it​ will not put colleges and universities on-notice because Congress cannot regulate their business practice, but it​ will embarrass their presidents and possibly force them to​ submit paperwork or​ public testimony to​ explain their pricing decisions. if​ the federal government publicizes such a​ list, it​ may also scare prospective applicants away from institutions that need students, even if​ the school is​ in​ a​ position to​ offer considerable financial aid.

This is​ one scenario where it​ is​ better for Congress to​ butt-out. State governments are already taking their own steps to​ regulate tuition increases for the institutions that are under their control. The voters, including parents and students, have a​ stronger voice with their state government than they do with the federal government. Placing state-supported schools on a​ watch list would serve to​ show that some states have less commitment to​ higher education than other states. I doubt that any member of​ Congress wants to​ embarrass the governor of​ the state in​ which they reside.

Private institutions, like public ones, can prepare parents and students by publishing their annual tuition rates (670 have already agreed to​ do this, thanks to​ the National Association of​ Independent Colleges and Universities) and they can make their own decisions. This is​ one time that parents do not need Congress to​ be a​ nanny for them.

However, Congress should do the opposite, which is​ also something it​ is​ good at: rewarding the good schools, irrespective of​ their tuition charges.

Therefore, I have an​ alternate proposal. Congress should create an​ "honor roll" of​ colleges — the colleges that do the best at​ retaining and graduating their students. in​ a​ previous piece, I wrote that approximately 260 four-year colleges have retained 85 percent of​ their freshman class and graduated 65 percent of​ their entering first-year classes within six years. There is​ a​ good mix of​ schools to​ set an​ example for the rest.

It makes far more sense to​ recognize the most successful schools and use them to​ help their peers. While colleges have varied missions, their primary task is​ to​ help their students receive degrees. Every college wants to​ do that better, and every college president already knows that some schools do that better.

The honor roll could be more than a​ list; it​ could be an​ exchange of​ ideas to​ help schools get better. Unlike other markets, college presidents do not want their competition to​ fail; it​ is​ an​ embarrassment to​ all schools when a​ single one closes. The success of​ a​ college not only depends on its ability to​ manage student costs, but also the academics, student services and physical plant. The honor roll could also be a​ motivational tool with college employees; they do not receive the same incentives as​ private sector workers.

A public honor roll would also be noticed by employers. They want to​ recruit the best and the brightest; not all of​ them go to​ the schools that are considered prestigious today. However, inclusion on the honor roll elevates the prestige of​ many institutions for a​ very positive accomplishment. The honor can only help their students in​ their job search; it​ certainly cannot hurt.

Even better, Congress might not need to​ fund the honor roll after a​ year or​ two. The same corporations that support intercollegiate athletics or​ aggressively hire entry-level employees can be drawn in​ to​ support a​ national honor society based on student achievement, or​ maybe one of​ the ranking sources would like to​ make the investment. There are no scholarships or​ stipends attached, only the costs of​ ceremony and publicity.

Are there negatives? Yes. Schools might be tempted to​ fudge graduation rates or​ let students slide in​ order to​ be included on a​ list, but then, the honor roll would be important enough to​ be worth the effort—including all of​ the paper work that might otherwise be expended on a​ watch list.

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