Fed should stay out of colleges

If a college freshman stepped onto a campus where the administration spent months eviscerating each other over petty slights instead of balancing the budget or refusing to name a dean because a faction of the faculty resent his work, the student would undoubtedly run screaming into the night looking for the fastest way out of there.

So, remind me, exactly why do we want the federal government setting benchmarks for higher education? This is the same group that keeps making pennies at a loss.

As President Barack Obama recently outlined in a proposal called “The President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America,” the latest idea to improve our educational system is to hold “colleges accountable for cost, value and quality” using these criteria, plus affordability and student outcomes, as prerequisites for receiving federal student aid.

Explained simply, the president is proposing to bring big government into the college ratings game.

Right now, colleges and universities are rated (or accredited, as we say in higher education) by regional or national education agencies.

The president’s proposal would like to add some more consumer-related ratings such as graduation rates, job placements and salaries to these accreditation criteria and possibly take over responsibility for the entire system.

I’m one of Obama’s fans, because it’s always nice to have a former college professor in the Oval Office, but in this case, he must have cut class for skeet shooting on the day they studied logic in law school.

Let’s look at this the way Socrates might have, although if he had to deal with federal oversight, he might have drank the hemlock out of frustration.

Budgets: Every college and university must balance its budget, cutting services and programs in lean years and expanding services and programs in flush times. The federal government today can’t pass a budget at gunpoint.

Diversity: The U.S. higher education system is the envy of the world.

We are the destination for students from Asia, Europe and South America. In turn, those international students help recover some of the spending Americans do on foreign products. The strength of American colleges is that each one approaches its mission to educate in a different way. Federal accreditation means eventually all colleges will become cookie-cutter institutions.

Competition: The soul of higher education is building a campus that attracts brilliant students with visions to change the world. To do that, colleges and universities look for innovation and experimentation to get an edge on the competition. The federal government does not do well with competition. Actually it doesn’t do will without competition either. See Amtrak or the U.S. Postal Service.

There are some institutions that could use marked improvement, of course. There are a number of universities where students try college for a year and fail to return.

The for-profit universities also have a few hurdles to overcome before their style of education reaches the lofty standards consumers have come to expect from American universities.

Homogenizing the college education to fit a set of preconceived standards will dilute one of the best products the United States has ever created: the independent, brilliant, inquisitive college graduate.

Do we really want Harry Reid, John Boehner, Dennis Kucinich and Mitch McConnell making decisions as to whether our children go to Harvard, Stanford or Mankato State?

Only if we want the United States to weaken its standing in the global community – in one of the categories where we still set the standard for excellence.

Thomas Kepple is the president of Juniata College.