Assessing the Proposed Federal Ranking System
The following interview is with Bill Destler, president of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Destler recently wrote a column discussing the true role of higher education institutions and the challenges the new proposed rating system poses to that role. In this interview, he expands on those ideas, discusses the role higher education leaders will have to play in crafting the new ranking system and shares his thoughts on whether a ranking system could work in the diverse higher education space.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): President Obama recently outlined his plans for a college ranking system that would take into account metrics related to access, affordability and outcomes. What do you think are the biggest positives of the new system?
Bill Destler (BD): I think the whole system is designed to actually address a major problem in higher education, which has been the escalating costs and concerns about the access to higher education for people of modest means.
So, he’s looking at possible metrics such as the percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students a college has on its rolls. Or things like, what percentage of students actually graduate and what is the return on investment in terms of the kind of jobs they take and the income they receive upon graduation.
I think those are all positive attempts to basically encourage campuses to address the whole issue of access and return on investment in higher education.
Evo: Conversely, what are some of the most significant problems with the new rating system?
BD: The most significant problem is the same problem all ranking systems have, and that’s that they try to filter all these different kinds of institutions through a single filter as if one filter should apply to all.
I’ve always asked the fundamental question, “Why don’t we actually pass North Carolina A&T [State University] and Princeton [University] through this same filter?” They address very different constituencies. They have very different resources available to educate those students. They have very different goals, and I think that we would judge their success in very different ways.
So, I think there’s a real problem with trying to come up with one particular ranking formula for all these different kinds of universities.
Evo: Adult learners typically transfer between institutions and take more than the allotted three or six years to earn their degrees. How would the rating system rank schools that serve mainly non-traditional students?
BD: I think that’s one big question. I think that we should call the administration to task to answer that question.
For example, my own school requires 80 percent of our students to take at least a year and put it in industry or the public sector and get real-world experience before they graduate. So, that means that the earliest one of those students could graduate from RIT is five years. That will affect the six-year, the seven-year, graduation rates of any institution that has the same kind of requirements.
We clearly need to show some flexibility to a different nature of institution. That brings back my previous point that one filter is going to be hard to make work.
Evo: What factors do you think are most critical to take into account when determining a rating and ranking system for higher education institutions?
BD: Well, I do think those of us in higher education had better involve ourselves in this process or we’re going to get a system we don’t like. I think, to some extent, we’ve been, sort of, protesting, but protesting from the outside. We need to get more involved ourselves in trying to advise this administration and the Department of Education to make these kinds of decisions in a sensible manner.
I think we’re going to have to work with the administration and try to come up with a system that will accommodate the tremendous variation in institutional type and character in this country.
Evo: Do you think it’s possible to create a number of different ranking systems that would encapsulate all of the different types of institutions that exist across the United States?
BD: I wouldn’t advise it. It might be possible, but there’s an awful lot of kinds of institutions.
There are public institutions, there are research institutions in the public sector and the private sector, there are small liberal arts colleges, there are technical institutions like RIT — there’s a whole host of these things. There’s agriculture-intensive institutions, including the Morrill Act institutions.
I think you’d be hard pressed to come up with even a reasonable number of ranking systems that would actually prove to be very useful.
I’m not a big fan of ranking systems. I think students are better served by finding as much as they can about the institutions of which they might be interested and finding out what’s the best match for them.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the ranking system President Obama has proposed and the way the higher education system might move forward to divvy up public funding in a way that reflects their success metrics?
BD: I think we need to be active in trying to help them define this system, whatever it turns out to be.
The jury’s still out on us as to whether or not this system will be important. We do know that, for example, some of the rankings have a negligible impact on student choices, but others seem to have more of an effect.
It will be important as to see whether or not families are really going to this federal website and seeing how those schools are doing according to this new set of metrics.
Only then would it be a subject of possible real concern for higher education. I suspect it will be one of those things where it will be added to the general mix of ranking systems already out there. And some people will care about it and others won’t.
This interview has been edited for length.