In the last several years, there has been much ink spilled, and many a forest leveled, by commentators contending that an “education bubble” will hit American higher education and correct the ills of a system that has outpaced inflation and family incomes in the last 40 years. Naturally, many have wondered whether some degrees are still worth it, given the cost and the projected income. Indeed, most of the argument challenging higher education in the U.S. has been focused on the cost structure, or notions of ROI – return on investment. The president and the U.S. Department of Education have joined the fray, focusing on the costs, all the while maintaining that young people must obtain a college degree to be successful.  Not content to be part of the chorus, the President upped the ante last year by announcing that colleges, by 2015, will be evaluated and “ranked” through a “scorecard” based on an as-yet-undefined rubric, centered on access, affordability and outcomes. This may well bring the education bubble upon us unequivocally, and is the next challenge, rather, the next crisis, facing higher education in the US.

            Why? Because unlike ranking systems put forth by various publications, this one will have the full faith and backing of the government and will, in a very real way, establish a college or universitys’ reputation with the public, based largely on the perception of cost. There is a significant component missing from this discussion of education – quality. While from some quarters there is talk of the content of a baccalaureate – though rarely about pedagogy or how students are taught or tutored – there is little discussion at the national or political level about what quality is or includes in higher education, thus the default to access, cost and outcomes.  For many programs or degrees that focus on vocational testing, licensure or agreement among practitioners to gauge competency, this narrow view may be quite appropriate. What about when the focus is higher than simply preparing students for jobs, or ought to be?

            It is interesting to note that colleges and universities are already announcing new admissions standards to reduce the pool of students who might underperform. Access will be impacted as institutions attempt to boost their scorecard. More importantly, think about how potential students will not be challenged by gifted faculty or by the responsibility associated with taking courses. Think further about the people we all know who went to college for a time, did not obtain a certificate or degree from that institution, but are clearly better for having attended.

            This of course leads to “outcomes” and the inevitable link to what the president and others have called “value.” In one sense, it seems reasonable to say that “outcomes” ought to be part of a college’s reputation. How students perform on standardized testing, whether they graduate, are accepted to graduate schools or pass state license exams, and the job they obtain may be reflections of the content or quality of the education they received – or not. How might we account for all of the aspects of a person that an education, particularly a higher or liberal education affects? Is an education merely to make us eligible for employment? Does the ability to write, speak, work and interact with others and think/act independently confine itself to the workplace? How do we account for the differences among people and what interests or affects us? When does responsibility fall on the student? How do we take seriously all of the various reasons a student decides to attend one school over another, the culture of that school, the cost of attending, the reality that over time students’ needs, views of themselves, and what they want, changes? There are as many reasons that a student decides to attend or leave a school as the mind can invent, and each college is unique.  In short, to monetize the discussion of quality in higher education – cost, potential income, indebtedness – is to turn it into a mere commodity, rather than to see it as that which enables us to be responsible for our own lives.

            Is it easy to see how the new scorecard/rankings may become quite political and favor certain types of institutions and education, since the ratings will be used to determine whether students can gain federal financial aid to attend a particular school. As a liberal arts college president friend has put it, students “choice” will be limited as they are “coerced” into attending certain types of colleges over others.

            So much for democracy. . . .