Rank colleges on value, sure. But then what?

Keeping your old textbooks around has its downside. They take up space, they are heavy and expensive to move, and they are a magnet for dust and mildew. Every once in a while, though, besides being useful, they provide an unexpected insight into a modern problem.

A recent look into a now-ancient introductory physics text, for example, provided a much needed refresher on force and acceleration. The section on atomic structure, though, yielded more than just a lesson in obsolete physics theory. There was also a perspective on organizational behavior.

Atomic and particle physics have absorbed a flood of new knowledge since my old textbook was published and the consequent changes in physics theory have been presented in later editions.

Each one of those changes, though, represented an admission that earlier theories, and earlier physicists, had been wrong. It’s no wonder, then, that change doesn’t come easy in academia.

We all resist change to one degree or another. Just imagine how eager any of us would be to embrace change if it meant a public confession that we had been wrong.

On college and university campuses, then, uttering the word “change” is like turning on the kitchen light at 2 a.m. in a cheap apartment. All sorts of living and semi-living things start scurrying to their favorite hiding places.

President Barack Obama revealed major changes that he has in mind for higher education during his recent speech in Buffalo, N.Y., part of a two-day set of campus speeches in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. His ideas are still mostly in the planning stage, and why he chose to reveal them now isn’t clear, but they would profoundly change our higher education system. Something tells us that there’s a whole lot of scurrying going on.

The heart of the president’s plan is a college ranking system that would allow the government to tie federal financial aid to performance. In a sense, the plan is taking the annual “best colleges” listings produced by Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and Washington Monthly and writing them into law.

Taken on its own, the president’s idea makes a lot of sense. Certainly a good deal of the trillion dollars in accumulated student loans was wasted on unfinished degrees and education of questionable value. The student loan industry is now a government monopoly and an apparent money maker — let’s hope they are not using the Fannie Mae loan accounting software — so it is logical to redirect the flow of funds to students and institutions whose combined efforts are more likely to pay off.

What could be wrong with this plan? Nothing. And everything.

The magazines that created and publish these college rankings have learned a lot about the scoring systems, weighting systems and statistical modeling that go into identifying the best schools. They, along with prospective students and parents, have also learned a lot about the limitations of these ranking systems.

Obama has already directed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to start preparing a college ranking system that will incorporate measurements of the “best value” that the federal government is looking for as the basis to distribute student aid. Presumably the government ranking system will build on the work already done by the popular magazines as well as others in the field.

Colleges and universities have also learned a lot about ranking systems and their strengths and weaknesses. Some schools have undoubtedly figured out how to engineer or “game” them to improve their score. When millions of dollars are on the line, “gaming” the government ranking system will become a necessary, legitimate and even respected activity at colleges — perhaps even worthy of an endowed chair.

There are real limits to gaming the system, though, and while that might become a problem, for the most part our colleges and universities will reshape themselves to meet the new federal criteria. Is that really a good thing, though?

The president’s plan masks two issues. The first is that while affordability is the stated goal, the plan does nothing to change that. The largest single reason for cost inflation in higher education is the federal money pouring into the system. Unless the president’s proposal includes a secret plan to cut that funding back, his plan will reallocate the money but leave the aggregate amount the same, leaving its impact on higher education costs largely unchanged.

The second thing the plan masks is that decades of bipartisan federal spending have transformed higher education into an archipelago of government dependencies. Making higher education more accountable sounds like a good thing, but why should colleges and universities be accountable to the federal government? How is that going to turn out to be a good thing?

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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