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Obama's college 'scorecard' doesn't measure up

| Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

The Department of Education has released its “College Scorecard,” a searchable college-affordability database that President Obama described as containing “reliable data on every institution of higher education.”

Unfortunately, that simply isn't true.

I can say so as a president of a college that was excluded from the scorecard. That fact poses risks to institutional autonomy, and it might shape the American higher education landscape in unexpected, negative ways.

Nearly two centuries ago, writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr penned the words, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” For Grove City College — a private liberal arts college that in 1984 fought a higher education legal battle with the Department of Education all the way to the Supreme Court — this proverb is all too real. And once again, Grove City must respond to the long arm of the f­­­­ederal government in higher education.

Because we do not accept federal financial aid as a matter of principle, Grove City has been excluded from the scorecard.

We understand that accepting federal student aid opens colleges and universities to a myriad of federal regulations. Our 1984 Supreme Court case, Grove City College v. Bell, was about freedom from intrusive and expensive federal regulation. We decided to raise private support and use private student loans to maintain independence from the federal government.

Today, most Americans might find it admirable that our 2,500 students do not take federal tax dollars to fund their degrees. Yet, sadly, the American people cannot learn about Grove City via the Education Department's scorecard — despite Obama's boast. That means students are not learning about a valuable educational choice.

Ironically, as the regulatory burden on higher education increases, our independence as an institution has increased in importance and economic value. Our tuition is far below the national average, 95 percent of our last two graduating classes were employed or in graduate school within six months and our alumni earnings are in the top quartile nationally.

In 2013, before settling on the scorecard, the Obama administration proposed a comprehensive federal ratings system to measure accessibility, affordability and outcomes at all American colleges and universities. The results would have determined institutional eligibility for participation in the federal student aid program. Smaller private colleges that focus on classroom teaching tend to be tuition-dependent, making federal student aid their financial lifeblood. Poor performance on the proposed ratings system would have spelled doom for many private colleges, thereby diminishing a great strength of the American system of higher education — its institutional diversity.

The proposed ratings system eventually was scrapped in response to the objections from the higher education community, yet shades of its heavy-handed determinism remain in the scorecard. The federal government now is the purveyor of an official website that sanctions one set of institutional performance criteria in a one-size-fits-all manner.

The danger is that the public will view the scorecard as an objective consumer information tool, and colleges will focus on the outcomes contained therein to the detriment of other less quantifiable — but equally important — institutional objectives.

In addition to financial indicators, Grove City measure's the value of education by the holistic value it provides to our students, the nation, the world — and the common good.

Performance metrics and accountability in higher education are critical to quality and public confidence. As the public evaluates the scorecard, it would be wise to consider the cost of the expanded federal role it represents.

Grove City College has demonstrated that excellence does not have to be bankrolled by the government. We believe the public, upon further review, will conclude that appropriate measures of educational quality do not have to be decreed by the government, either.

Paul J. McNulty, a 1980 Grove City graduate, is a former U.S. deputy attorney general and Grove City's ninth president.

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