Which colleges are worth the price?

College students at the University of Illinois. With higher-education debt and costs soaring, federal officials are trying to figure out how to measure the performance of colleges and universities. E. JASON WAMBSGANS / Chicago Tribune
College students at the University of Illinois. With higher-education debt and costs soaring, federal officials are trying to figure out how to measure the performance of colleges and universities. E. JASON WAMBSGANS / Chicago Tribune
Posted: April 18, 2012

Those urging Democrats and Republicans to reach consensus more often should be careful what they wish for. The higher-education policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, for example, have had much in common: They have been equally simpleminded, equally unhelpful, and equally intrusive.

Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s education secretary, sought to require every college and university in the country to create massive databases that would allow the federal government to track all students’ academic whereabouts and performance. She also sought to require mandatory acceptance of transfer credits across public and private institutions, ignoring differences in quality and academic rigor. Both policies were shot down by Congress.

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has sought to regulate what constitutes a “credit hour” and define acceptable ratios of college costs to future income — an oversimplification of higher education’s purpose, which is only partly workforce development. Congress is working on legislation to shoot that down, too.

The federal government has a right to demand quality and accountability from colleges and universities, even private ones. It invests billions of dollars in student loans and aid every year. But its ham-handed efforts to measure outcomes are not likely to do the job.

They are certain, however, to drive up educational costs, as institutions spend more on data collection and compliance. Muhlenberg, the small, private, liberal-arts college I’m president of, has seen an explosion of such record-keeping over the past five years.

Moreover, the federal government is threatening to violate the privacy of individual students and set the educational standards of private institutions.

In a season when Americans are filing their tax returns and making decisions about college, I have a modest proposal that would allow the government to assess colleges’ performance with far less difficulty. It would not require institutions to collect much more data or create a lot more bureaucracy. It involves adding three simple questions to the IRS’s 1040 form:

What college or university, if any, did you attend?

What degree did you receive?

Was it worth it?

An institution that scores less than 50 percent on the third question should be ineligible for federal funding. An institution that scores less than 25 percent should lose any tax exemptions.

Muhlenberg could live with this. Our alumni surveys generally report satisfaction levels above 95 percent, and I suspect most reputable colleges and universities would fare well on this score, too. Fly-by-night for-profit institutions that load students up with debt in exchange for worthless credentials would lose out — and good riddance to them.

The beauty of this proposal is that it doesn’t assume everybody has the same reasons for pursuing higher education. Some students will become bankers, accountants, entrepreneurs, or chemical engineers. Others will be teachers, rabbis, social workers, or scientists. And still others will be drawn to poetry, philosophy, or the performing arts.

People have highly individual reasons for pursuing higher education, and the real value of their education will never be accurately captured by government-imposed categories and metrics. So let’s just ask the customers if they got what they wanted and if it was worth what they paid. Pretty simple, really.

Peyton R. Helm is the president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

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