President of Randolph College, Brad Bateman, is an economist and a long-time champion of the liberal arts, and is someone with a great perspective on the current landscape in higher education.  So, I was both pleased and not-so-pleased to see his op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times on the new Department of Education project to develop a new “value based” college rating system. President Bateman says this could have the paradoxical effect of making colleges that “already have the most experience with helping low-income students may end up looking like a poor choice.”  

Why would that be? 

As a good economist, Bateman walks through the incentives such a system sets up and argues that (like with the US News rankings) it will likely fall victim to what we economists call the good old multi-task principal-agent problem. That is, if you get rewarded for having high graduation rates, make sure that you only accept students with a high probability of graduating.  Colleges that currently work with higher-risk students may well “improve” their rating by simply not letting these kids in.  I think we have an endogeneity issue.  

I will put him down in the “not a fan” category:

There is no way to accurately reduce the complex issues in higher-education quality — graduation rates, loan debt, percentage of Pell grant recipients, lifetime income — to a single rating number.

I am persuaded by his argument and I also agree with his solution:

The White House could make all the data it thinks is important available on a searchable website. Rather than attempt to reduce the information to one number, or to rate schools against one another in an arbitrary way, the administration should make many types of data easily available and let people rate schools for themselves.

Those of you who have been around for a while may recognize President Bateman from his visits to the LU campus.  He was our first Senior Experience speaker with his talk on Keynes and the Crisis of the Welfare State, and he returned to Lawrence last year to give a TEDx talk on undergraduate advising.

So, I am pleased to see President Bateman with an op-ed in the Times, but not-so-pleased that he had to write it in the first place.