Kentucky voices

Marty Solomon: Rating colleges likely another federal priority that will backfire

July 17, 2014 

Marty Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com.

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  • About the author: Marty Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com.

The federal government has done many wonderful things: It expanded the right to vote, promoted equal access to public accommodations, reduced workplace discrimination, ensured clean air and water and built the interstate highway system.

But, boy, can Uncle Sam sometimes screw up, big time.

Most federal programs in education have been dramatic disasters. The No Child Left Behind law has hugely damaged K-12 education because it didn't eliminate the disparity between poor and middle-class children as was promised, but instead turned our public schools into testing machines where almost nothing matters except test scores. It matters not if children can think. It matters not if children can appreciate literature, art or music.

In fact, so many subjects have been de-emphasized in the quest for test scores that it is questionable if kids will be able to function well in the future.

Reductions in recess and physical education to allow more time for test preparation have probably contributed to obesity, and the threat of teachers' job loss has driven far too many to cheating.

Federal officials and legislators should be taught Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is, before people implement new rules, they need to assess the potential unintended consequences, because these ugly creatures will invariably arise.

And as Samuel Johnson, English writer and literary critic, told us, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

The federal guaranteed student loan program is an example of good intentions gone awry. While it has allowed huge numbers of students to attend college, they graduate with debt beyond their means. And these loans allow colleges to charge outrageous tuitions. Without the student loan program, tuitions could not possibly have skyrocketed to today's levels and far more of the under-prepared students who flunk out of college would have attended community colleges or technical schools and have been much better served.

After the Bush administration made a mess of K-12, the Obama administration now proposes to muck up colleges.

With good intentions, it wants to create a rating system so youngsters can find a college best for them. But here we need to bring Sir Isaac and Johnson back to life. How would this proposal actually rate these institutions? One factor would be graduation rates. What would be the equal and opposite reaction? Some colleges might simply graduate everyone, especially if federal funds were attached.

Others would receive low ratings through no fault of their own due to kids who have financial problems, party too much and drop out, kids who get into trouble with the law or who become pregnant and leave school.

Another rating factor would be student debt. But how could the federal government penalize a college for problems that the federal government itself created? Another factor would be post-graduation salaries. Are colleges responsible for the major a student chooses? If people want to pursue low-paying careers such as art or music, should the college say no? Shouldn't we be concerned with the unintended consequences and nix this awful idea before it damages our colleges?

As Johnson once said, "A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out." A college rating system is such a cucumber. And shouldn't the feds get out of the education business, where its track record is so abysmal?

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