Polarizing Plutocracy: Our Broken Higher Education System

Kathleen Geier:

The American political system is broken, and one unmistakable sign of it is our inability to bring down soaring levels of student debt or to regulate predatory for-profit colleges. The best solution the Obama administration has been able to propose in this area is a college ratings system that would evaluate colleges on the basis of factors like graduation rates and graduates’ earnings and debt loads.

Frankly, the idea that a ratings system will fix what ails American higher education is a little nuts. It views education as if it were a market like any other, and treats colleges like consumer products. “It’s like rating a blender,” burbled Education Department official Jamienne Studley last week to the New York Times. But while blenders can be tested in a lab, employment statistics can be all too easy to game, as anyone who’s followed recent reporting about bogus law school employment rates can attest.

By taking an approach to regulation that emphasizes “transparency” of information, the Obama administration also places the burden of evaluating schools on students and their families. Less affluent students, who often are poorly advised during the college application process in general, won’t fare particularly well under this system. A more aggressive approach is needed to protect them from the predatory for-profits. For many in this group, far more generous financial aid is needed to make going to college an economically rational decision in the first place.