College ‘labeling’ plan cannot be one-size-fits-all

An Oreo cookie has 53 calories. Curiously, a Chips Ahoy cookie also has 53 calories. Neither has any cholesterol or calcium. We know that because easy to read labeling has taken a lot of the mystery out of what we eat. Nonetheless, the food industry’s trade associations once argued that the federally-mandated labels were unnecessary and unwanted by consumers.

Following up on the popular cost calculators that colleges now must make available to prospective students, President Obama wants to place a new label on the packaging of America’s colleges and universities spelling out various indicators of a school’s record on student access and success. Nineteen higher education trade associations have declared the labels unnecessary and unwanted. In a survey of college presidents, only 13 percent thought students would make use of the information.

I have a great deal of respect for the many leaders and organizations in higher education that have expressed concerns about the administration’s plan. But higher education’s response must be more thoughtful than simply offering the reflexive no that every industry issues when called on to disclose information. After all, informed choices are never a bad thing.

When Sen. Sherrod Brown gathered the presidents of 43 Ohio colleges and universities on Capitol Hill recently, President Obama’s proposal was a hot topic. The challenge for the administration was clear. Just in that room sat the leaders of state universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, Christian schools and art schools. Student success does not mean precisely the same thing across these schools. It does not even mean the same thing within a school. A student who takes a few courses to learn a trade is a success at a community college, but so too is a student who completes an associate’s degree, or one who excels in her first year of classes and transfers to a four-year school.

Sen. Brown invited a top official from the Department of Education to discuss the issue with us. One president explained that he was proud of his institution’s efforts to reach more economically disadvantaged students and others who might not otherwise go to college. Yet, if these students take somewhat longer to graduate, he worried that his school’s rating would suffer as he fulfilled one administration goal at the expense of another. Another president said that the administration’s initial effort to track career success has failed to capture the rich array of opportunities his graduates pursue. Of the dozens of professions that attract his alumni, only one is listed as a category in the federal survey on student employment.

There is also an inherent tension between demanding simple, universal data from schools and reflecting the unique properties of a college that resist being quantified. You could, for example, compile and report the average starting salary for graduates of every school. By that measure, though, Columbia’s score would have suffered when one of its graduates became a community organizer – never mind that he was later elected the 44th president of the United States.

Many college presidents fear the administration’s labeling effort will create arbitrary comparisons that will leave their schools in an unflattering light. But imposing some clumsy categorizations need not be the only option. If the labeling tool is constructed to let students choose the comparison group, then some real good is done. If a student is choosing between a community college and a university, then that is the comparison that matters most regardless of which institutions each school considers to be its peers.

It will be, quite plainly, hard to develop one label that conveys meaningful information about every college and university. That it is hard is not a reason to give up. Instead of lamenting its limits, the leaders of America’s colleges and universities should help create the best label possible. If we work together, we can ensure that we do not allow this new system to fall into the trap of inflating a sliver of what a school does into what defines it.

Higher education drives our economy. It drives America’s future. It is, we can all agree, more important than a cookie. That’s why everyone should be able to see exactly what’s in the package.