The higher education sector is undoubtedly in the midst of a significant transformation. Powerful economic, social and technological trends are forcing change. A flurry of federal policies and regulations aimed at holding colleges more accountable for their outcomes are also making their way into higher education, affecting even colleges that are normally considered quite successful. While the main focus of our blog has been on the proposed Gainful Employment rule, we cannot help but comment on activity at the state level where we see examples showing the difficulties, or perhaps the folly, of applying one-size-fits-all fixes to measure higher education programs.

According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “Punished For Its Mission?”, policymakers in Florida are implementing a new performance plan designed to allocate state funding to colleges based on 10 different factors, including the percentage of undergraduates who are low-income, the cost of a degree, retention and graduation rates, and students’ post-graduation employment status and pursuit of graduate studies.

It’s tough to argue against these factors, as they are certainly relevant to measuring a program’s quality and success. And we are impressed that Florida has identified 10 separate factors for a broad-based measurement. The problem, however, is that even 10 factors do not account for the range of issues that need to be considered in evaluating the success of a college or any of its programs. The Florida system fails to account for students who find employment outside the state of Florida, who attend prestigious graduate programs abroad, and students who join the Peace Corps or other admirable volunteer programs. Similar to what we’re seeing with the proposed Gainful Employment regulations, what may look good on paper to regulators is not necessarily practical or sensible in the real world, and may omit key variables that are highly relevant.

As the Inside Higher Ed story points out, the New College of Florida, a small public institution in that state, is at risk of losing its full share of state funding because, despite delivering strong outcomes for its students, it cannot clear the bar on some of the state’s metrics because so many of its students go to the prestigious University of Oxford on scholarship, join the Peace Corps, or go on to out-of-state jobs. It seems ludicrous that these could be the reasons for a well-respected, strong program to lose its access to government funding.

The Obama Administration’s Gainful Employment regulations share similar flaws. In fact, in comparison to the Florida model, the GE rule is incredibly narrow. It ignores traditional measures of a program’s success, such as graduation, transfer, and job placement rates that have obvious relevance. Instead, it dwells exclusively on financial matters – student loan debt and a student’s ability to repay it shortly after graduation. While these factors are relevant to an overall measurement of a program’s value and quality, they are insufficient to serve as the only metrics for doing so.  Too many sound colleges providing a quality education to students will undeservedly pay the price if the Department continues with this folly.

While the Florida state performance metrics are by no means perfect, at least they include the basic measures of retention and graduation rates when assessing the value of an educational program. Perhaps the Department can learn a lesson – that once a government begins drawing lines to measure higher education, it is critical to study the issues carefully and be sure they are the right lines.

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