Cathy O’Neil: College Ranking Models

By Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist. Cross posted from mathbabe

Last week Obama began to make threats regarding a new college ranking system and its connection to federal funding. Here’s an excerpt of what he was talking about, from this WSJ article:

The president called for rating colleges before the 2015 school year on measures such as affordability and graduation rates—”metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with, how easy is it to pay off, how many students graduate on time, how well do those graduates do in the workforce,” Mr. Obama told a crowd at the University at Buffalo, the first stop on a two-day bus tour.

Interesting! This means that Obama is wading directly into the field of modeling. He’s probably sick of the standard college ranking system, put out by US News & World Reports. I kind of don’t blame him, since that model is flawed and largely gamed. In fact, I made a case for open sourcing that model recently just so that people would look into it and lose faith in its magical properties.

So I’m with Obama, that model sucks, and it’s high time there are other competing models so that people have more than one thing to think about.

On the other hand, what Obama is focusing on seems narrow. Here’s what he supposedly wants to do with that model (again from the WSJ article):

Once a rating system is in place, Mr. Obama will ask Congress to allocate federal financial aid based on the scores by 2018. Students at top-performing colleges could receive larger federal grants and more affordable student loans. “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results,” he said.

His main goal seems to be “to make college more affordable”.

I’d like to make a few comments on this overall plan. The short version is that he’s suggesting something that will have strong, mostly negative effects, and that won’t solve his problem of college affordability.

Why strong negative effects?

What Obama seems to realize about the existing model is that it’s had side effects because of the way college administrators have gamed the model. Presumably, given that this new proposed model will be directly tied to federal funding, it will be high-impact and will thus be thoroughly gamed by administrators as well.

The first complaint, then, is that Obama didn’t address this inevitably gaming directly – and that doesn’t bode well about his ability to put into place a reasonable model.

But let’s not follow his lead. Let’s think about what kind of gaming will occur once such a model is in place. It’s not pretty.

Here are the attributes he’s planning to use for colleges. I’ve substituted reasonably numerical proxies for his descriptions above:

1. Cost (less is better)
2. Percentage of people able to pay off their loans within 10 years (more is better)
3. Graduation rate (more is better)
4. Percentage of people graduating within 4 years (more is better)
5. Percentage of people who get high-paying jobs after graduating (more is better)


Nobody is going to argue against optimizing for lower cost. Unfortunately, what with the cultural assumption of the need for a college education, combined with the ignorance and naive optimism of young people, not to mention start-ups like Upstart that allow young people to enter indentured servitude, the pressure is upwards, not downwards.

The supply of money for college is large and growing, and the answer to rising tuition costs is not to supply more money. Colleges have already responded to the existence of federal loans, for example, by raising tuition in the amount of the loan. Ironically, much of the rise in tuition cost has gone to administrators, whose job it is to game the system for more money.

Which is to say, you can penalize certain colleges for being at the front of the pack in terms of price, but if the overall cost is rising constantly, you’re not doing much.

If you really wanted to make costs low, then fund state universities and make them really good, and make them basically free. That would actually make private colleges try to compete on cost.

Paying off loans quickly

Here’s where we get to the heart of the problem with Obama’s plan.

What are you going to do, as an administrator tasked with making sure you never lose federal funding under the new regime?

Are you going to give all the students fairer terms on their debt? Or are you going to select for students that are more likely to get finance jobs? I’m guessing the latter.

So much for liberal arts educations. So much for learning about art, philosophy, or for that matter anything that isn’t an easy entrance into the tech or finance sector. Only colleges that don’t care a whit about federal money will even have an art history department.

Graduation rate

Gaming the graduation rate is easy. Just lower your standards for degrees, duh.

How quickly people graduate

Again, a general lowering of standards is quick and easy.

How well graduates do in the workforce

Putting this into your model is toxic, and measures a given field directly in terms of market forces. Economics, Computer Science, and Business majors will be the kings of the hill. We might as well never produce writers, thinkers, or anything else creative again.

Note this pressure already exists today: many of our college presidents are becoming more and more corporate minded and less interested in education itself, mostly as a means to feed their endowments. As an example, I don’t need to look further than across my street to Barnard, where president Debora Spar somehow decided to celebrate Ina Drew as an example of success in front of a bunch of young Barnard students. I can’t help but think that was related to a hoped-for gift.

Obama needs to think this one through. Do we really want to build the college system in this country in the image of Wall Street and Silicon Valley? Do we want to intentionally skew the balance towards those industries even further?

Building a better college ranking model

The problem is that it’s actually really hard to model quality of education. The mathematical models that already exist and are being proposed are just pathetically bad at it, partly because college, ultimately, isn’t only about the facts you learn, or the job you get, or how quickly you get it. It’s actually a life experience which, in the best of cases, enlarges your world view, and gets you to strive for something you might not have known existed before going.

I’d suggest that, instead of building a new ranking system, we on the one hand identify truly fraudulent colleges (which really do exist) and on the other, invest heavily in state schools, giving them enough security so they can do without their army of expensive administrators.

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About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. middle seaman

    Like health care and education reforms Obama already attempted, this loans/money/quality/what the hell offer misses most of the point and intellectually suffers from very weak foundation.

    Most institutions of higher education are serious, well run academically, provide solid skills and education and are run the last 30 years like businesses. Obama gave trillions to the banks without an attempt to measure anything, but education requires according to him measuring the hell out of and then reallocation of existing money.

    That’s a waste of time. And as with all Obama efforts, it’s yet another look good means almost nothing try.

    Want to help: stop the salary inflation on the president and VPs at colleges. Allocate much more money, so students won’t have to borrow as much. Make student loans highly subsidized instead of the money grabbing business they are now. We are not doing a favor to anyone; it’s our next generations that we have to invest in.
    May we should change the word student into bank. Showers of money will start falling.

    1. kokuanani

      Thank you. An excellent comment, reinforcing the similarly excellent points Ms. O’Neill made.

      Ironic, isn’t it, that our supposedly “super intelligent” President can’t figure out these basic concepts.

      OTOH, I don’t think he really wants to; it would go against the interests of his “pals” and future [post-term] benefactors.

  2. anon y'mouse

    the four year graduation metric is a bad one to use for a number of reasons.

    it disfavors colleges who obtain the bulk of their students from community colleges. it disfavors colleges that have a significant proportion of students who are attending less than full time (in other words, adults or others who have to work and pay their own way). it also negatively impacts colleges because young people often show up, flounder around awhile confused about what they want or why they are there (their brains are still maturing, after all) and drop out, however temporarily.

    with this in mind, I would say the four year graduation rate reinforces the same biases pointed out above: it favors those people who come from families that stress the importance of the investment of education, people who have set themselves the goal of getting a well paid career afterwards, and generally also favors those who are obtaining enough financial support (from parents and/or other sources) to attend school as their full-time occupation with few outside distractions. in other words, tiger children of tiger moms, those who always knew they’d go to college and picking a major was simply a matter of which one-of-three well paid careers they wanted to pursue afterwards.

    in other words, not working people, single mothers, or ghetto children who go to community college and take more time to complete their education due to juggling competing demands for their time & money.

  3. HotFlash

    Race to the bottom for colleges, great. And here is another instance of Lewis Powell’s plan being carried out. From Truthout, Beloved San Francisco Community College Targeted by “Rogue” Accreditation Commission @

  4. David Lentini

    We’re hearing the death knell of higher education, just as we’ve been hearing for primary education the last 30 years. The idea that one can rank colleges in any meaningful way is insane if you care about education quality in the sense of intellectual development.

    But if you look at college merely as a training ground and exercise in ticket punching, then the sort of throughput cost accounting that Obama proposes makes sense. The irony is that nearly 25 years after the Soviet Union collapsed, we’re on the verge of replicating their system of manpower-education allocation in which schools are responsbile for training, not developing intellects.

    So ends democracy. With a population that is acculturated to schooling for jobs, not education for intellectual development, and mentally numbed with popular entertainment, the plutocrats and oligarchs will have completed their subjugation of America.

    1. nonclassical

      …and as Dan notes below, to the profit$ of a corporate ameriKa (“K”-street)
      having ended public ed., in favor of no instructor-no unions-no pensions, internet ed.

      and to the advantage of those who control the past-historical revisionism
      as “reality”…

      look around us-cellphone “education”…youth are being “taught” not to learn to think-they can find anything on their internet cellphones…

      meanwhile “intelligence agencies”, to control that information are coming online..

    2. Jim S

      One wonders why the architects of this policy think such a docile and dependent population would be worth ruling.

    3. A Real Black Person

      Any sensible discussion about higher (higher= 4 year college in this post)educational reform becomes polluted by people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds who think the current system of higher education is a highly valuable form of self enrichment.

      The CORRECT function of encouraging higher education among the masses since 1945, is so that countries and businesses could improve their bottom lines.

      Every time I read a comment in defense of the status quo and laments any changes that will reduce the number of people with Liberal Arts degrees, I feel compelled to wipe the sheltered upper middle class crust from that commenter’s eyes. Most people don’t value or care about history, poetry, philosophy, etc. Most people, who aren’t cultured upper class people, or highly intelligent, are much more interested in creating or adhering to popular social ideologies than Liberal Arts. Group-think and faith, trump facts and intellectual pursuits. Education cannot beat this out of their heads. Most private sector employers don’t value or care about Liberal Arts, either. They are more interested in increasing their wealth and power, something that the business majors, engineering and finance students are more equipped to help them to do than someone with a bfa in whatever.

      Yeah, I know that, in Europe, education is FREE. It’s “free” but costs are constrained because not everyone is allowed to go to college. If there are countries in Europe that promote that egalitarian nonsense(The traditional 4 year education was geared towards the wealthy who didn’t need to work. In fact, it still is. Most of our current problems with regards to higher education lies in its inability to serve the economic needs of our society. Higher education was designed to prepare the wealthy with leadership and administration of civilized society.) about how all college education is good–they most likely will have an economy where nearly everyone’s working for government and the government’s borrowing money to deliver the promise of “good jobs” a.k.a. the Greece situation OR, like the U.K., they have our problems with too many college graduates who have no useful purpose to society and to themselves with their “self enrichment” “education”.

      1. Ed

        Reading the other comments on your thread, I can see what you mean.

        Essentially, all higher education institutions are trade schools. A few are trade schools for elite trades (originally the clergy, now a number of trades invovling symbol manipuation such as finance and media). Most are blue collar and pink collar trade schools. The debate is over which percentage should be trade schools of the first type and which percentage should be the more blue collar trades schools, in particular whether the expansion of elite secondary education post World War II can be sustained.

        I think that if the post World War 2 middle class goes away, the managerial focused universities that supported it will go away too.

        Some of the confusion is in difficulty in separating higher learning with higher education institutions.

  5. Dan Kervick

    Total capitulation to the corporate suit takeover of higher education. The strategy is free market solutions via deregulation and market competition, with subsidies driven by crass performance metrics tying educational success to the earnings of the graduates,leading to an education landscape dominated by McColleges and Sam’s Schools.


    1. Almost everyone will go on to post-secondary education. It will be affordable.

    2. Only about 5% of them will receive something close to what we once called a “higher” education.

    3. The rest will attend something akin to post-secondary trade schools with curricula designed hand-in-glove with corporate human resources experts.

    The insider Ivy elitists will think this is good enough, because they never liked the idea that regular people could obtain an education that is qualitatively similar to the education obtainable by the upper crust.

    1. jrs

      Actually trade schools as true trade schools would be an admirable thing. This is something else entirely.

    2. Beppo

      The ‘university as trade school for professionals’ is something that they’ve been sawing at since the 60s student movement.

      The original object of the university was something like a classical liberal arts education, making the children of the upper class well rounded human beings who understand how to think. That became available to a much broader range of society post ww2. This lead to things that our elites didn’t like.

      So this model has already been destroyed in most places. Who knows how ugly the university of 2033 will be. Except Ivys and private schools of course, they’ll be fine.

    1. nonclassical

      yup-the guy who can talk without truth…can’t admit Manning exposed truth, nor Snowden…couldn’t show up in Wisconsin to stand for truth…couldn’t hold accountable, nor commit oversight of Wall $treet who broke U.S. economy, nor
      bush-cheney who broke the world with war crimes, intentional destabilization of Middle-East (Bush I told us and his son,”W” exactly)=disaster capitalism…

      an Obama who “won” the peace prize for talking-(not being “W” war criminals), has given us no truth in actions…


  6. BITFU

    In other words “ObamaLearn”

    The whole affair strikes me as “technocratic”–which, of course is problematic because I’m not sure I really even have a grasp on what it means to be “technocratic”.

    Technocratic: It’s an interesting concept. Empirical and data driven. Theoretically, technocratic principles should cut through the corrupt political backroom jockeying. Yet, the term is essentially a pejorative.

    “A BITFU search on technocratic” gives a sense as to how both the Left and Right use the concept.

    The Left tends to employ it against the Right in connection with the imposition of austerity. [Except for Delong who now is kinda against technocracy while being kinda for “sane technocracy”. If that confuses you, Pocket-Krugman wants you to know that’s because he’s smarter than you.]

    The Right, meanwhile shotguns the word against All-Things-Left–before, during and after having nominated a quintessential technocrat in Romney. Go figure!

  7. washunate

    Education has nothing to do with workforce performance. Once one accepts that canard, the rest naturally follows.

  8. peace

    Yes! “If you really wanted to make costs low, then fund state universities and make them really good, and make them basically free. That would actually make private colleges try to compete on cost.” Caveat: A market solution like this might work but Art, Math, Physics and basic research can be costly without visible, measurable, practical outcomes.

    You are also correct, Yves, that schools and administrators openly discuss gaming the system by lowering standards to improve graduation rates and times. The unprofessional bluntness of these demands can be stupefying. Professors are already familiar with gaming their ratings by lowering grading standards; so, the culture is ripe and forgiving of this type of school ratings loyalty. I have witnessed and been pressured by this first hand and I sometimes pay the price by being fair, honest, and irreverent (i.e., “disloyal”). On the other hand, I acknowledge that some administrators, faculty and overarching school cultures are fair, honest, and focus on learning, analysis, application and enlightenment; while also succeeding in terms of perceived and actual performance.

    Yves is correct that measuring the performance of education is nearly impossible. I have attended, worked for, given talks at, volunteered at, and coauthored with colleagues at top-rated schools as well as unrated community colleges. Teaching methods at low status schools often excel. In fact, the ratings religion only undermines these schools by deligitimating them unfairly. Students and communities perceive schools as above-or-below the bar and ignore ambiguities. It is nearly impossible to separate status from performance. The status quo is reinforced as companies hire and brag about their Ivy educated staff.

    Note: You left out the fact that a significant component of school ratings involve peer-ratings which are not performance measures. Peer ratings are perceived status which is biased in favor of appearances instead of substance; style over content. Peer ratings are also biased in favor of loyalty and historical quality instead of present-day quality.

    Corruption is endemic in terms of lying and cheating on performance metrics to attain higher ratings. If Obama cared about this, he would not be waging a war on whistleblowers.

  9. C

    Don’t forget quality. Obama’s model, unlike the U.S. News, seems to ignore the concept that some degrees are better than others and that size matters though in a small way. If, for example, you get a bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college then you have a greater chance of getting personal attention from faculty and a deeper understanding of the material versus a large, often underfunded, state school which will leave you adrift. Obama seems to ignore that or to assume that it will be reflected soley in employment numbers.

  10. Joe Rebholz

    Once upon a time 8 years of education was enough. Then 12 years was enough. Now 16 years is not enough to develop the kind of full humans needed for democracies to work, and for our technological/informational economies to work well and produce good societies (not to speak of figuring out what kind of good societies we should want and how to get there from here).

    Educating oneself is a job. It is work. For many it is hard work. We need many, many more people to take these jobs. So people should be paid to educate themselves. The job of educating oneself should be the first job guarantee.

  11. kevinearick

    empires always ‘fix’ the symptom…

    On Your Marks…

    As a laborer, you have a private life separated from your public life, with a middle class, setting up your RCL battery. Publicly, you serve capital, drilling the financial black hole, just as deep as capital wants to go. As you can plainly see, you are going to have a budget somewhere in the range of $35T+ current, which is going to come out of rents relative to labor – “…investor’s emotions invariably swing in the wrong direction at the wrong time.”

    Contrary to popular opinion, this is the best time in History to start YOUR OWN family, when rents hit the wall of demographic deceleration at the end of epic mal-investment, if you have been privately learning how to swim out of the black hole with nature as your guide. The entire empire is at the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time – “…they compare themselves to others who are making more money than they are and they conclude that they should emulate other’s actions…This is the source of herd behavior…”

    After ‘perfecting’ the ability to pull returns forward and push risk back, institutionalized investors, brokers making money work for brokers, with massive sunk cost overhead resting precariously off-sheet, must choose increasing risk at decreasing return, hoping to lose les than their competitors, while your overhead is close to zero – “…capital availability, [blah,blah,blah], credit spreads, among others.” You are capital in the future – “…over time as memory fades the lessons fade as well.”

    Capital controls labor by studying it, which means that you know your private potential and you know capital’s perception of your public profile. It doesn’t matter whether capital employs satellites, cell phones, credit reports, cops, your neighbors or anything else – “It’s what you for sure that just ain’t so…,” “those who don’t know, and those who don’t they don’t know…,” “In fact, sometimes too much data keeps us from seeing the big picture.”

    There is no plan; there are a relatively infinite number of plans. If you allow anyone to get between you and God, you are necessarily going to be a slave to their plan, which will fail you every time, sooner or later, and you will have no one to blame but yourself. What is natural in your current system is not going to be natural if you choose to explore unknown space. Focus on the ability to adapt, to provide for your family – “…opportunities often arise unexpectedly…that can give us an opportunity to respond spontaneously…”

    Insurance is not life. Life is a labor of love; it is rare and it is necessary, which makes it valuable to those looking forward. History is relative in that herd behavior justifies itself in a positive feedback loop, calling the result Justice of the Peace, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Judge not…, Assumption are like…, assume makes….Make that which you want to buy with your time and move forward, leaving the sunk cost to be recycled by others. All empires are ponzi financed and all lead to the DNA churn pool.

    You can invest in bullets and gold, but I would suggest that you build a community communication system as a priority. The new is built in the ashes of the old. The beauty and effectiveness of a flattop was its ability to provide vision, not its ability to deliver weapons. So the moron herds short-circuited the vision of a space program; you’ll have that kind of outcome from time to time with institutionalization. Neither a master nor a slave in a mental institution be.

    Think what you like about boomers, but no generation is monolithic. Many of us never bought into the ‘American Dream’ of a middle class peer pressure RE ponzi, and we have been systematically removing barriers to your success all along. When the time comes, we will remove the eunuchs in the US Navy serving as obstacles as well. Choose a spouse, get pregnant, get those 24 hr/wk, $12-16/hr jobs and start your businesses off-grid. (set it up to run on or off grid at will; that is your vortex gate, your one and only check on government). You are money in the bank. Don’t wait for the bank to tell you so. Create your own currency.

    Investing in life always produces the best return on risk over time, and the empire is always stupid enough to take the opposing positions. Whether you view capital, middle class, or labor as capacitor, resistor or inductor, or transistor, depends upon your application. However, if you want to be considered the standard for labor and accrue the associated value, you must be able to effectively operate anywhere in the system, which requires experience for which there is no substitute. It’s like being a traffic cop at a three way intersection, in multiple dimensions. Build your compiler accordingly.

    Locally, aggregated globally, the first, second and third responders collectively control 75% of the drug trade which is 75% of the monetary economy on the margin; they just stole all the resources along the rail line; and they want to ‘take back’ (the rest of) the forest and ocean in the names of their dead standard bearers. Exactly who is the US “running with the big dogs,” “a force for good,” Navy working for anyhow?

    Timing will take care of itself, if you can hash a stack of uniques to form the exit wave. All you needed was scope and now you have it. The only difference between macro and micro is the perception of time, division by zero, which occurs in waves. The photon is particle, energy and operator, in its gear.

  12. jrs

    Agree with this article. Is no area of life to be left alone without Obama making things worse? If our politicians did nothing it would be a vast improvement to all their lousy programs that make life even more debased and degraded. Basically it’s implementing No Child Left Behind for *adults* at the college level (btw spread this meme it’s adult NCLB). NCLB killed teaching. NCLB was all about making education about some dumb and yes gameable metrics. In NCLB the metric is test scores, in this scheme the metric is gross income of graduates. Higher paying jobs are better than lower paying ones – not even ceteris paribus – but ABSOLUTELY and that’s how education is measured.

    Education has no other conceivable value, go to school and don’t graduate your education had no value. Take a long time to graduate the education has less value (by the way most adults working full time will take a long time to graduate – it disincentives so called “adult education” – busy adults with full time careers, kids etc., slowly working toward degrees or for career change). And if you don’t go for the super high paying job your education has less value.

    What I’d want instead: fund the community colleges to death, let everyone in whether they graduate or not. That as a basic service to society like libraries. Then have well funded state schools for careers requiring more than that. That’s all.

    1. tongorad

      “Is no area of life to be left alone without Obama making things worse?”

      Spot on. Obama, sent here to destroy what’s left of civil society. The neoliberal’s neoliberal.

  13. Nathanael

    For long-term quality standards, administrators need to be elected by either professors or students, or best, both.

    Of course, this is anathema to absolutely everyone involved in college administration.

  14. craazyman

    Another Business Idea from the “Outside the Box” University:

    what about giving govermint grants to companies that hire kids from the bad colleges.

    that would give the kids jobs and it would make bad colleges look much better!

    I’m not sure mathematical rankings will ever get to the bottom of this.

    It would also show society you can go to a bad college and still be a good corporate employee. That means if Goldmint Stacks hires kids from a college that nobody ever heard of outside of a 15 mile radius (or on the internet) and they turned out to be just as malleable and kleptocratically clever as the kids from Yale — which they no doubt would — it would should you something about what it takes to succeed in today’s business world.

    This is sort of like the NFL draft, where the worst teams get the highest picks the next year.

  15. Lyle

    As to college as primiarliy job training, of course if you look at it the land grant schools were for training in Ag Engineering and Military science. Also how many universities today started out as Normal Schools or Teachers Colleges (hint most of them). A Teachers college is explicitly a vocational training institution, just indeed as is a seminary. Interestingly Harvard at least was set up orginally way back when to train ministers also.
    At many of these schools after WWII there was a desire to become more comprehensive, either thru dropping the ag (Michigan State Univ of Ag and Applied Science to Michigan State Univ. Or Eastern Michigan which was Michigan State Normal College until 1956.
    Many states back then paid for on comprehensive University such as Michigan or Texas, Texas A&M was unique in that it kept the same name all be it it became a comprehensive university, as indeed did Texas Teachers colleges such as Southwest Texas, etc.
    So except for our national flush period after WWII it appears that states preferred to pay for institutions that provided higher level job training.

  16. Hugh

    We live in a kleptocracy. Universities are corporations, and like corporations, they are being run by managements who are using them as vehicles to loot.

    Education whether vocational or university should be a right of citizenship. We could say that “If Obama were serious, he could do X, Y, or Z”, but that’s just it. Obama isn’t serious, at least, about helping students. We should all know this by now. If it doesn’t profit the rich and the elites, Obama doesn’t give a sh*t about it.

  17. Kokuanani

    You don’t really need to say much more than this:

    If you really wanted to make costs low, then fund state universities and make them really good, and make them basically free.

    But of course that would make things too easy and would cut back on the number of worthless, highly-paid administrators need to “game” Obama’s latest “system.”

    He’s always providing for his pals.

  18. Pistol

    What is the problem with higher ed that Obama is trying to fix? That college “needs to be more affordable?” The only serious response is that we cannot judge affordability if we can’t specify what college delivers.

    And almost no one at a university can do that, much less achieve consensus and pursue those specific ends with any determination or thoroughness, i.e. focused curriculum and evaluation. Gerhard Casper, former president of Stanford, quipped that the only thing that we can agree on about college is that it should take four years. Oh yes, and one more: the university gets its money up front. Risk is for students, parents, and taxpayers. Suckers.

    Wake up, people! The real divergence in interests is not between faculty and administrators (who are just playing their petty inside politics), but between university insiders and everyone else.

    (1) Real outcomes measurement. If no-name colleges can do a better job of producing learning than Harvard can, let the world know. If online education works as well as a residential university, let the world know.
    (2) Universities take the risk on student loans. The feds can buy down the interest rates, but loan repayments would be through the university, which should feel the pain of each and every default. That is a lot easier for the feds than technocratic evaluations of debt amounts and graduation rates, which are easy to game and beside the point.
    (3) While we’re at it, remove the in-state tuition subsidies for state-sponsored universities (largely a transfer from the poor and middle-income taxpayers to the students of the upper middle class) and subsidize poor students instead. Vouchers are a terrible idea for K-12 but a perfect fit for higher ed.
    (4) OK, one more. Pay the athletes. Duh.

    These changes may mean a substantial cultural change at colleges and universities, but so what? Universities have changed before.

    I am no cheerleader for the short-term values of the employment markets, but nothing – and I repeat, absolutely nothing – in my fancy liberal arts program could ever equal the ability (developed elsewhere) to feed and house myself and start a career and a family.

    If the faculties and staff want to dispute that, then as far as I am concerned they may do so at their (unpaid) leisure.

  19. Tim

    I don’t know about this negativity toward what is proposed. Why is Yves discounting the affects of competition within the rating system to zero?

    Yes things will be gamed, so if everybody games equally no body falls down the ranks, but the second colleges start make real decisions that improve their standing the losers and the bulk which find themselves falling down the ranks will have to follow suit.

    In the end that is why I think this article shoudln’t be so negative, because Obama is proposing something better than the status quo. It seems to be like No Child Left Behind, the college version which given that college is voluntary has a much more likly chance to succeed.

    As another example, although you perceive it a crime to severely disincentivise liberal arts degrees, I think it is entirely appropriate, given how many people have opted for that path which has destroyed their financial future. If you’ve got the money, go hog wild getting a degree that won’t make you a dime, but for everybody else stay the hell away.

    1. jrs

      Do we want colleges to carefully calculate future labor markets based on a long list of potential impacts on these labor markets (ie H1Bs increasing, manufacturing being insourced or outsourced etc.)? In other words are colleges in the economic forecasting business, for the labor market, or not? Because the economy is dynamic and unless colleges are in the economic forecasting business, they will be looking in the rear view mirror!!! Past performance is no guarantee of future results. And the dynamic forecasting must of course be self-reflexive. Ok let’s say nursing looks hot based on various trends in the economy, but if too many people go into nursing it’s no longer hot because the labor market is flooded! Do we want both forecasting and major rationing? Interesting command economy we’re creating here ….

      That’s theoretical. Here’s some examples: in addition to a liberal arts degree getting that technical degree also stands a good chance of destroying one’s financial future. Let in enough H1Bs and other skilled immigration and I think it has a very good probability of happening, that computer science degree will be a joke (well maybe the NSA will still take you – just show a *very* UNindependent mind!). Because even liberal arts degrees were not *inherently* worthless across all time periods. There was a time you could get a good job with one. Why? Because there were lots of good jobs without hard skills requirements (and companies were willing to do SOME training for people with soft skills to get some company specific skills). Now there aren’t lots of good jobs period!!! And noone trains. It’s the external economic conditions that made liberal arts degrees worthless. Those who just like to attack them as such and think there are good degrees, must thing the worth of such things is inherent. It’s not.

    2. jrs

      I see most discussions of higher education in this country as fundementally diversionally. Yes education is overpriced and a bit of a racket, but people could probably still pay off their overpriced loans if the the economy didn’t stink so much. People can’t pay off their debt mostly because they can’t get good paying jobs period. It’s the economy stupid. You can’t solve the economic problem by talking day and night about education.

      Then there is the dual mandate of what higher education *IS* in this country. Is it job training or liberal education? If it’s job training then I think it should be directly so. No long extended 4 year degrees. 2 years entirely focused on a vocation should suffice for most things. This would be an incredible boon to those less than middle class. Because it would mean less years for education to compete with the NECESSITY of bringing in money. Wham, bam and start earning money. This is incredibly important if you don’t come from money. But what about the liberal arts mandate of training citizens? Well we don’t actually have citizens in this pseudodemocracy. But I don’t really like the assault on liberal arts. I don’t want dumber and dumber people that are more and more easily fooled. That’s disasterous for society, for the world. That’s one reason to react with utter revulsion to this proposal.

      But wouldn’t 2 year trade schools just accomplish the same thing? Yes maybe. But this proposal is actually the worst of both worlds – long long drawn out degrees, while totally gutting any possibility of true liberal arts focus (because all incentives will be set to crash such things). Worst of both worlds. Years wasted, without any incentive to produce a real liberal arts education. And the years wasted even kills people’s ability to self-educate just because it steals their time! How can you find time to read NC if you’re busy getting a long drawn out degree that isn’t *even* teaching you about the world?

    3. tongorad

      “…because Obama is proposing something better than the status quo.”

      Thus spake Obamabot. This is what y’all say about everything

    4. NotTimothyGeithner

      You don’t understand the negativity?

      This isn’t Obama’s first year in office much less his first term.

      I will keep it simple. Student loan debt is crippling. Colleges are swindling young people across the board. The President’s response is a mysterious rating system which won’t go live until 2018.

      Its another case of ignoring a problem while trying to claim credit for non-existent successes. This is the only thing Barack Obama knows how to do. Young people have been hammered during the Obama Administration and served as the Democratic base. Serving young people would be anathema to Obama, but even Obama understands Democrats might get jumpy if their numbers sink any lower among young people. He needs to something to claim he is doing something.

      Ignored in Obama’s ramblings about the bourgeois were tuition assistance, audits directed towards endowments, administrators, abolishing interest rates on loans, paying people to go to school, or even reversing the efforts of Joe Biden and allowing student to be discharged in bankruptcy courts once again.

      This is the reason for the negativity. If this was an isolated incident, one might call it cynicism, but there is a clear track record. Might I suggest you pay more attention to the last few years.

  20. JTFaraday

    “President Obama took aim last week at rising levels of student borrowing, but two graduate students in sociology say the real culprit for growing college debt is Wall Street.

    In a report posted last week on the Web site of the Scholars Strategy Network, Charlie Eaton and Jacob Habinek, doctoral candidates at the University of California at Berkeley, assert that the expanding burden of tuition debt is “partly driven by the indebtedness universities have taken on.” Public research universities have passed along their own debt to students by raising tuition and fees by an average of 56 percent from 2002 to 2010…

    Using the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or Ipeds, the authors examined data from 155 public research universities and found that their debt-service payments had risen 86 percent from 2002 to 2010.”

    I wonder what percentage of people sitting on college and university Boards hail from real estate development and finance?

    The high salaries and associated perks of upper admin and their pet faculty are symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself.

    The disease itself is the way that Boards utilize the institutions as mere vehicles for their business and political interests while everyone else pays the price.

  21. cg

    Obama made other higher education suggestions in the last week, wanting to cut law school to two years and an internship. You can see his thinking: there’s certainly no need for constitutional law or ethics classes anymore, regulatory and labor law are being made irrelevant, and law firms could use the cheap labor.

  22. mark

    well it cost me a total of $20,000 for my undergrad as a Canadian citizen, whereas it would cost an American in the US 3 times that. and this is because the universities here are subsidized by the feds.

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