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Are private institutions truly independent?

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Scott Miller Scott Miller

Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College.

I was asked the other day if sleep deprivation was a recent arrival in my life.

“No, it’s been going on for about 23 years,” I answered — the amount of time I’ve served as a college president.

To the normal rewards and expected burdens of being a campus CEO, however, are some potential new complications. And a number of them are courtesy of our federal government — they’re well-meaning, to be sure, but still keeping me awake at night.

A June briefing to college presidents from NAICU, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, comments on two issues that potentially undermine private and public colleges’ freedom from further regulation. One is related to the government’s proposed “rating” of college effectiveness — linking such rankings to availability of financial aid for low-income students. The other pertains to what NAICU terms “many public officials (viewing) financial return as synonymous with educational value.”

President Obama’s proposed ranking of colleges and universities would address two fundamental, undeniable challenges confronting many college applicants: affordability and value. Last summer, the White House summarized his plan to “measure college performance through a new ratings system so students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value. And after this ratings system is well established, Congress can tie federal student aid to college performance so that students maximize their federal aid at institutions providing the best value” (FACT SHEET on the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class, The White House, August 22, 2013).

Although this all sounds well and good, for us college administrators, the devil could be in the final metrics used to measure “value.” As NAICU points out, we certainly don’t oppose transparency in providing helpful information to our student consumers and their parents during the college-selection process. Most colleges and universities already honor this responsibility. In fact, we advocate for even more discussion with families about student loans (and student debt), Pell Grants and the various state-funded “Promise” scholarships, such as the merit-based program West Virginia makes available to eligible students who enroll at either public or private institutions.

We do, however, oppose “efforts to assess quality through narrow metrics,” in NAICU’s words, and we’re wary of further federal regulation that seeks to define “quality,” “value” and “institutional effectiveness.”

Similarly, when public officials describe return on educational investment in terms only of a graduate’s career earning potential, we raise our hands to challenge them. A college or university education, public or private, in America generally does increase one’s lifetime earnings, says NAICU — to the tune of about a million dollars. But worth noting as well is the instilling of “qualitative values that enrich lives, promote good citizenship and foster creativity and innovation.”

Again, not everything of value that results from higher-education investment can be measured quantitatively. The value of one’s residential, educational experience, offered within a liberal arts mission by many independent colleges and universities, cannot be reduced to a data spreadsheet of outcomes. There is room, and desirability, for assessing a college’s effectiveness in many other ways, as well — in the testimony of alumni, for example, and in the letters, texts and emails we receive from first-generation college students who have achieved something no one else in their families could. Student volunteer service can be documented in hours spent in a soup kitchen or shelter, but how do we measure the life-changing impact for those who give and receive?

Bethany College’s founder, a minister and teacher named Alexander Campbell, had begun his career as a Bethany educator with his Buffalo Seminary, an early preparatory school.

As of 1840, however, Campbell had begun to pursue a larger vision. He understood that the transformational power of education was meant to develop the whole person. As noted in our new institutional history “Bethany College: A Liberal Arts Odyssey” by D. Duane Cummins, “the development of physical, intellectual and moral human powers stood as a key feature” of Campbell’s “towering devotion to education.”

More than a preparatory school was needed to fulfill Campbell’s vision for the educated and enlightened citizen. He needed a full-fledged college.

Coupled with Campbell’s well-known career as a religious reformer, his establishment of Bethany College stands as one of the landmark events in our state’s history. It is notable especially because Campbell was free to pursue his idea of a college, including a visionary mission of liberal learning that has withstood numerous challenges to its survival during the past 174 years.

I would hate to think that the very freedom to pursue an idea of education should be hamstrung by excessive requirements of compliance. I’d prefer to evaluate our success more broadly and comprehensively in the career and life achievements of our students and graduates, in their service to society and in their reinvestment in the educational enterprise that fostered their freedom of thought and responsible expressions of citizenship.

A narrowly focused ranking system, as NAICU points out, can never do that. I hope it doesn’t come to pass. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a publicly mandated responsibility for measuring something that an institution already does well, especially when private colleges in particular realize that their proven effectiveness is tied directly to their own survival through the choices made by cost-conscious consumers.

I appreciate what the government is trying to do. But if I were sure Washington had it right, perhaps I could sleep a little longer on these hot summer nights.


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