Higher Education’s New Caste System

Originally published in the Washington Monthly on September 5, 2013. 
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Yesterday, the Washington Monthly, in collaboration with the New America Foundation, hosted a panel discussion exploring, among other things, the White House’s recently proposed plan to develop alternative college ratings. 

James Kvaal, the Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who spoke at the event, explained that the new ratings, expected to be released by 2015, will focus on how accessible, affordable and successful a college is at helping students to graduate, achieve a degree or transfer to another institution. 

Kvaal emphasized that these ratings would not be rankings. They would not be designed to punish schools but rather as an impetus to help institutions improve. “We want to give people a broad sense of which institutions are providing value,” said Kvaal.

Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris asked a follow-up question: is it even possible to devise a rating system that won’t be ultimately “gamed by the system”? Kvaal answered that while it’s essentially unclear at this point, the idea would be for the rating system to consist of broad categories, therefore making it difficult for institutions to simply tweak something small and expect a rating boost. The design, in theory, would encourage colleges to enact more fundamental changes to their mentality and culture if they wish to see their ratings improve.

Diana Natalicio, the President of the University of Texas at El Paso (which theWashington Monthly ranks #7, right ahead of Harvard) said that she and her colleagues had to change the culture at UTEP. She said that in the early ‘90s, her colleagues at UTEP looked at their minority and low-income student body as “a liability,” rather than an asset. Since then, Natalicio has worked closely with the K-12 system in El Paso, all but eliminating remedial education at the college level. “Data was essential in transforming our institution,” said Natalicio who asserts that facts, rather than biases and assumptions drive their new decisions. 

The other panelists, including New America’s Director of Education Policy, Kevin Carey and Columbia Journalism School’s Spencer Education Fellow, Jamaal Abdul Alim spoke of their experiences working in the higher education sphere. 

For more, see The Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage of the event.

Watch the video here.

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