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Tipping the scales

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President Barack Obama visited upstate New York two weeks ago to declare another administration initiative to reform yet another American industry.

This time, he focused on the high cost of college and post-secondary education. Naturally, since the tour of college campuses came just as school started, there was an audience of willing listeners who had recently paid their fall tuition bills.

Post-secondary education is expensive no matter how many scholarships a student earns or how well-do the student’s family is. But so are cars and houses.

Educating students is a costly enterprise. Just look around the north country where General Brown High School cannot even teach physics this year because of a shortage of teachers.

Or look at Morristown Central School whose superintendent has warned the community of the district’s inability to finance the costs of a high school diploma. And these are government-run institutions with the power to tax.

So instead of proposing to fix the challenged public school system, the president promised to employ government to develop a “college scorecard” by 2015. It would rank every college in the nation based upon a set of imposed criteria such as average tuition, graduation rates, student debt and use of student loans.

If he can convince Congress to approve companion legislation, the president’s program will link grants from the federal government to the rankings, steering more aid to the higher-rated colleges. That should give every college leader, professor, teacher and staff member some pause.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, told Bloomberg News, “It’s a very hard job to decide on how to rate colleges. I have to be somewhat apprehensive when any force as powerful as the federal government undertakes the task.”

The creation of a giant college-ranking bureaucracy in Washington to compare the graduation rates of Harvard and Jefferson Community College or the starting salaries of Clarkson University graduates with new teachers completing their studies at Potsdam State University College makes little sense. The process should scare educators who are accustomed to the academic freedom of the campus. The proposal is a message of political expediency that does not appear based upon sound economic analysis.

The ranking process proposed is open to incredible political manipulation. It will lead to universities adopting extraordinary measures to improve their scores by focusing valuable resources on earning higher government ratings rather than quality work in the classroom.

The spectrum of America’s colleges is represented in the north country. Jefferson Community College provides incredible educational value to people looking toward a career change, adding knowledge to better perform in a job and opening multiple paths for young students.

At Clarkson, new engineers weigh multiple job offers at high salaries while new teachers from Potsdam or Oswego struggle to find jobs as New York public schools cut staff positions. Financial services or business management jobs for St. Lawrence University graduates are not as abundant as they once were.

The dynamic nature of job prospects for north country graduates is impossible to quantify and predict. What skills are in demand four years from now will likely be different than those today.

North country colleges over the years have responded to the changing demands of the marketplace, adding courses of study and dropping others. Adding a level of federal intervention will interfere with marketplace decisions about careers and job opportunity.

Over the last 40 years, the most significant change in higher education has been the growth of scholarship programs that have allowed students to expand their minds and hone their skills. As universities have struggled with relentlessly rising costs, they have found a myriad of ways to mitigate expenses to students.

America’s colleges have for generations fueled the thirst for well-educated workers. Federalization of one of America’s greatest industries is an ill-thoughtout appeal for political support from frustrated students whose futures are threatened by an economy that has only partially recovered from the crash of 2008.

Congress should not take the bait and instead should devote its energy to encouraging free and open markets capable of exploiting growth to benefit all Americans.

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