By Terry W. Hartle
As the academic year draws to a close, it’s an appropriate time to briefly recap higher education-related activity on Capitol Hill. “Activity” may be too strong a word: The 113th Congress has so far been the least productive in history. For all of 2013, the House and Senate passed only 57 bills that were signed into law by President Barack Obama. By comparison, even the 80th “do nothing” Congress—so called by President Harry S. Truman—enacted more than 900 pieces of legislation, including such landmark creations as the Marshall Plan, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution.
This stasis stems directly from what is, according to the well-regarded National Journal’s partisanship index, the most partisan Congress in a generation. Just to take the traditionally more-moderate upper chamber of Congress, for example: In 1982, there were 58 centrists who occasionally crossed party lines when voting. In 2002, there were seven centrists. By 2012, there were none. The number of centrists in the House of Representatives shows an equally precipitous decline.
As a result, although the Higher Education Act (HEA) expires in December, and Senate Democrats may make progress with their bill-in-progress, it is unlikely that a final piece of legislation will reach President Obama’s desk this year. At 900 pages long, it takes a fair amount of work to rewrite it, and as everyone knows, not a lot of work is getting done on Capitol Hill these days.
That doesn’t mean that nothing of consequence to higher education is happening in Washington. ACE is actively monitoring developments on a wide spectrum of vital issues, including on-campus sexual assaults, Pell Grant and research funding, and the evolving efforts of Northwestern University (IL) football players to unionize.
But perhaps most immediately concerning to campuses is the White House’s Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), an effort to rate colleges and institutions based on their ability to “provide good value.” The administration is still not sure what kind of rating system it’s going to be— one that is primarily concerned with gathering accurate data for consumers, or one that is focused on holding institutions accountable— and as many experts have pointed out, a system that’s designed to do both will effectively accomplish neither. And while the administration has taken pains to emphasize that its ratings plan will not be a de facto ranking, many in the higher education community have observed that the former tends to beget the latter.
The effort is also going to be hampered by the very nature of American higher education: One of the greatest strengths of our nation’s network of postsecondary institutions is its wide diversity, but that very diversity makes it hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all way to rate institutions.
Within just one state—Massachusetts, for example—the sheer breadth of different institutional missions and scope would seem to make even the most well-intentioned ratings system ultimately uninformative. It’s hard to see how a single set of metrics could meaningfully enable prospective students to make apples-to-apples data comparisons among Smith College, the Berklee College of Music, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Each does very well in accomplishing its own distinctive mission.
Compounding these problems is the fact that the Department of Education has to cobble together this data-based system using inaccurate sets of retention- and graduation-rate data, as well as earnings data that only reflect the income of students who received federal student aid while enrolled at their college or university.
This ratings system is an idea that came from the White House that the Department of Education has to carry out, and to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (he of the infamous Iraq War observation that “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want”), the Department of Education is building a ratings system with the data they have, not the data they need.
But as ACE has made very clear to the Department of Education, using inaccurate information with an unclear specificity of purpose could easily do more harm than good as prospective students and families try to accurately gauge which college or university might best fit their needs.
PIRS is scheduled to deploy its first edition in the 2015–16 academic year. However, the second part of the president’s vision—to apportion federal student aid based on the ratings beginning in 2018—will require congressional approval. And, as noted earlier, Congress isn’t making a lot of legislative headway these days. In this case, that may actually be a good thing.
Terry W. Hartle is ACE’s senior vice president for government and public affairs.