Alvernia President says College Scorecard strikes out

Op-Ed: Alvernia University President Thomas F. Flynn, Ph.D., weighs in on the College Scorecard

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Alvernia University President Thomas F. Flynn, Ph.D.

READING, PA (04/23/2013)(readMedia)-- When President Obama announced the new College Scorecard recently, he boasted that parents and students can use it "to compare schools based on a simple criteria [sic] - where you can get the most bang for your educational buck."

I agree with the president on one thing: the Scorecard is simple. The problem is it's also simplistic. It reduces one of life's potentially transformational decisions for students of all ages to a primarily financial transaction.

It also ignores what employers say they are seeking in college graduates. Consider the just-released findings of an Association of American Colleges and Universities national survey:

• 95% percent of employers surveyed say they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will foster innovation in the workplace.

• More than 75 percent stress the importance of five key capabilities, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.

You won't find any of that information on the Scorecard.

What you will find is five pieces of data about a college: average net price, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed, and employment. Though most is available from other sources, including the government's College Navigator site, some of it is potentially helpful.

But is the federal government best suited to play the role of college scorekeeper? Hardly.

The White House's Scorecard actually has the potential to do more harm than good. Because it ignores educational quality, it paints a misleading picture of the college selection process. Especially for those unfamiliar with college, such as many low-income students, it creates the mistaken impression that gaining an education is a generic activity like buying a toothbrush. Hardly.

Even the financial data is misleading: the Scorecard ignores long-term career and economic success. Multiple studies confirm that investment in a four-year degree pays off, as graduates earn far more than those with only one or two (or no) years of college.

Also missing are critical facts on whether a college nurtures the success of underrepresented groups. Many of the nearly 90 private, independent college and universities in Pennsylvania, for example, are historically committed to providing life-changing opportunities - to students of all backgrounds. For immigrants and those from underserved populations, college has been a path not simply to prosperity but to a fulfilling life and, often, to leadership roles in the public and private sectors. These students deserve the chance to learn at a place best suited to their dreams.

In Pennsylvania alone, private colleges enroll nearly 60,000 low-income students and award 51% of the bachelor's degrees to minorities. Many of these institutions provide special services for adult students. Compared to the state's two- and four-year public institutions, it costs taxpayers in Pennsylvania only 10 percent of the amount to educate students at private, independent schools, even though they award 49 percent of college degrees. That is a "return on investment" that would be the envy of most businesses.

But you also won't find such information on the Scorecard.

With a focus on financial data, the Scorecard ignores the civic purpose of higher education. And it fails to acknowledge the potential moral purpose of universities like my own: the transformative role of helping shape students' personal and ethical development. The AAC&U report reinforces the importance of those qualities: more than 90% percent of employers confirm that they seek to hire those who demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity (as well as intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.) This result reflects a major theme in employers' priorities: 80 percent of those surveyed agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

But again, you won't find such information on the Scorecard.

Nor does the Scorecard report anything about learning outcomes. And most tellingly, it provides no information on student satisfaction with their educational experience.

The College Scorecard has not been created in a vacuum. It reflects the current denigration of liberal arts education and the reduction of higher education to simply another commodity to be purchased off a shelf. It ignores the indisputable fact that students are not mere consumers: they must actively participate in their purchase - their learning... if any learning is to occur!

Colleges and universities must be accountable for their financial stewardship. Comparative metrics can be helpful. But choosing a college involves far more than simply "getting the most bang for your educational buck."

Thomas F. Flynn


Alvernia University