Honor Roll

Members of Congress on the House committee on education have come up with an absolute bonehead idea: to publish a “watch list” of schools that have increased tuition at rates higher than inflation.

I am surprised when members of the House speak of reigning in college costs with measures such as this, when they fail to do the same for health care. I am sure the list of hospitals that have raised charges beyond inflation would be longer than the number of bad-behaving colleges.

What will a watch list do? It will not put colleges and universities on-notice because Congress cannot regulate their business practice, but it will embarrass their presidents and possibly force them to submit paperwork or public testimony to explain their pricing decisions. If the federal government publicizes such a list, it may also scare prospective applicants away from institutions that need students, even if the school is in a position to offer considerable financial aid.

This is one scenario where it is better for Congress to butt-out. State governments are already taking their own steps to regulate tuition increases for the institutions that are under their control. The voters, including parents and students, have a stronger voice with their state government than they do with the federal government. Placing state-supported schools on a watch list would serve to show that some states have less commitment to higher education than other states. I doubt that any member of Congress wants to embarrass the governor of the state in which they reside.

Private institutions, like public ones, can prepare parents and students by publishing their annual tuition rates (670 have already agreed to do this, thanks to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) and they can make their own decisions. This is one time that parents do not need Congress to be a nanny for them.

However, Congress should do the opposite, which is also something it is good at: rewarding the good schools, irrespective of their tuition charges.

Therefore, I have an alternate proposal. Congress should create an “honor roll” of colleges — the colleges that do the best at retaining and graduating their students. In a previous piece, I wrote that approximately 260 four-year colleges have retained 85 percent of their freshman class and graduated 65 percent of their entering first-year classes within six years. There is a good mix of schools to set an example for the rest.

It makes far more sense to recognize the most successful schools and use them to help their peers. While colleges have varied missions, their primary task is to help their students receive degrees. Every college wants to do that better, and every college president already knows that some schools do that better.

The honor roll could be more than a list; it could be an exchange of ideas to help schools get better. Unlike other markets, college presidents do not want their competition to fail; it is an embarrassment to all schools when a single one closes. The success of a college not only depends on its ability to manage student costs, but also the academics, student services and physical plant. The honor roll could also be a motivational tool with college employees; they do not receive the same incentives as private sector workers.

A public honor roll would also be noticed by employers. They want to recruit the best and the brightest; not all of them go to the schools that are considered prestigious today. However, inclusion on the honor roll elevates the prestige of many institutions for a very positive accomplishment. The honor can only help their students in their job search; it certainly cannot hurt.

Even better, Congress might not need to fund the honor roll after a year or two. The same corporations that support intercollegiate athletics or aggressively hire entry-level employees can be drawn in to support a national honor society based on student achievement, or maybe one of the ranking sources would like to make the investment. There are no scholarships or stipends attached, only the costs of ceremony and publicity.

Are there negatives? Yes. Schools might be tempted to fudge graduation rates or let students slide in order to be included on a list, but then, the honor roll would be important enough to be worth the effort—including all of the paper work that might otherwise be expended on a watch list.