Well, it looks like it might finally be happening. After decades of rising tuitions, rock climbing walls, and decreasing educational quality, the federal government is stepping in to give our universities a dose of the whuppin' stick. It will start rating schools based on a variety of factors, including student debt, tuition prices, graduation rates, and student earnings after graduation. Schools that perform poorly will see their funding cut. The DOE seems pretty confident in its ranking abilities, with one of its officials saying that it was no different than rating blenders. Look out, higher ed, you're about to get hit by tidal wave of the kind of standardization already laying waste to K-12 education.
That's because many facets of this proposal are repeating the failed "reform" strategies enacted there. By depriving money from "low-performing" schools, you effectively make it impossible to improve, since that costs money. By creating a ratings system based on imperfectly compiled quantitative data, everything important about education that can't be put on a spreadsheet (which is most of it) will simply be crushed into dust. If you don't believe me, up in Boston they are essentially eliminating history as the study of the past so as to better boost reading test scores. I can tell you now that the administrative fat cats who will have to come up with a response to this new policy will not respond by reducing administrative bloat, in fact I am sure they will hire more people to put in compliance regimes. To boost graduation statistics they will become more selective (i.e. classist) and encourage profs not to give failing grades. If you create major incentives based around pushing numbers around, people will find the easiest way to make that happen. The people who run the universities are master bullshit artists, so they will find a way to preserve the status quo as much as possible.
Despite the fact that I think this initiative by the Obama administration is a terrible idea, our university leaders brought it on themselves. They have spent the last few decades on a building spree and shoveling money into a metastasizing administrative layer while hiring an army of untenured adjuncts with (justifiably) little to no investment in the institutions where they teach. This means that students are not getting the optimal education, and scholars are not getting to reach their full potential. While universities are not to blame for the horrific cutbacks in higher education dollars at the state level, their inability to respond by cutting back on the building boom, big time college sports, and administrative bloat, along with their policy of just jacking up tuition (and presidents' salaries) instead of making the right cuts has led to this situation.
It's high time that the profession cleaned house internally in order to protect the people about to swamped by the quantified regime about to be put in place. Profs who aren't pulling their weight need a stern talking to from their peers, and to be told to either get their act together, or find another line of work. With higher ed in a crisis, everyone needs to be doing their job, if not they are letting everyone else down. It's also high time for students, parents, and faculty to hold the feet of administrators to the fire. When I was a professor I discovered a lot of student discontent with institutional priorities, discontent that could meaningfully be transformed into action. Administrators tend to exile faculty voice to powerless faculty senates; if the customers (that's how the university leaders see them) and their parents start to revolt, things will change. They need to change now, or else the change will soon be coming in the form of a one-size-fits all policy administered from the outside that will make the current troubles faced by the liberal arts look like a walk in the park.