Federal Scorecards and Liberal Arts Education

By Rebecca McCarron

The concept of ranking colleges and universities is hardly new, and now parents and potential undergraduate students’ have a new means of doing so: College Scorecard. While this system, purposed by the Obama administration, does not actually rank institutions of higher education, it does permit users to rank the institutions themselves based on criteria like the school’s graduation rate, net price after financial aid, the graduates’ average pay ten years after graduating, and the percentage of alumni who pay back their college debts. The purpose of the Scorecard, according to Nick Anderson of The Washington Post, is to allow parents and students to more clearly compare potential schools, while also allowing the government to see “which schools do the best job of preparing America for success.”

However, the system and its administrators have come under criticism for several reasons. Firstly, detractors argue that the system’s data fails to take into account issues of basic statistics causing misleading results. For example, as Michael McGrady and Jason Haskins of The Washington Examiner point out “The reason UCLA looks inferior (to Golden Gate University) on paper is that most of Golden Gate University’s graduates stay in the San Francisco area… and San Francisco is one of the most expensive places in the country to live. Thus GGU’s graduates tend to bring in higher incomes.” As Anderson explains: “That single number — median earnings — is inherently limited. Some colleges focus on producing engineers, others on schoolteachers or even rabbis. Even within the same fields, salaries vary widely by geography.” So though the data offered is probably of great interest to students, the results are not necessarily an accurate representation of the information sought. 

Concerns with the Scorecard are not limited to data; in addition, the critics of the program raise issue with the very concept of ranking higher education based on this kind of criteria in general. Jerry Muller, a history professor at The Catholic University of America, explains in a statement to The New York Times: “To rank the value of colleges based on the ultimate earnings of their graduates radically narrows the concept of what college is supposed to be for.” Daniel R. Poterfield, president of Franklin and Marshall College, expresses similar worries in his op-ed for The Washington Post. As he describes it, Scorecard “oversimplifies and over-emphasizes salary data that may not be predictive of future earnings and, more problematic, it fails to bring into view many beneficial aspects of the college experience, especially the value of rigorous liberal arts learning.” Overall though practically appealing, Scorecard also raises the more ethical question of just to what extent colleges could or should be ranked.

Certainly, as many liberal arts educators are quick to point out, the program fails to consider the variety and depth of courses offered, the extent of diversity on campus, or even the aptitude of services like advising. These appear to be fields in which liberal arts institutions in particular flourish, thus probably contributing to the overall lower ranking of those types of colleges and universities when users search through Scorecard. To be fair it would be at least difficult if not downright impossible to quantify core qualities of a liberal arts education such as the expansive body of knowledge gained in a variety of subjects, or how that body of knowledge leads to an independent, creative minded individual more thoroughly equipped to interact with a diverse group of people. Yet, if programs like Scorecard not only do not, but cannot properly gather data to accurately represent the value of a liberal arts education where does that leave the future of the liberal arts in higher education.

Rebecca McCarron is a junior at The Catholic University of America majoring in history and minoring in Spanish. The Catholic University of America is home to the Beta of D.C. Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.