Horn recommended a similar data-driven approach with the quality-value index he proposed in 2010. He doesn't necessarily claim the White House is following his lead, although policy advisors there and at the U.S. Department of Education probably reviewed it and similar proposals.
"I think they looked at our proposal and others for ideas about how to calculate the return on investment and ways to make people make smarter decisions about where to attend, based on productivity and affordability," Horn said.
Horn originally proposed a formula that would include factors such as the rate at which graduates found jobs within 90 or 180 days of graduation, as well as the salaries they commanded. Moving on to another level of higher education would also be recognized as a success metric. To keep the ratings from being entirely financially driven, he also suggested including a student satisfaction rating and other factors recognizing that "economics would not capture everything a college experience is supposed to return."
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Still, a big part of the point of Horn's proposal -- and Obama's -- is to avoid encouraging students to invest student loan dollars and other financial aid in an education that is unlikely to reward them with the earning power they will need to pay back their loans or deliver an economic benefit to the nation. Obama's proposal talks about measuring outcomes such as "graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates."
Obama also talked up online college programs such as the Georgia Institute of Technology master's degree in computer science, which will cost less than $7,000 thanks to a partnership with Udacity (one of the MOOC's most celebrated advances).
How that advocacy will translate into policy remains to be seen, Horn said. "What the president did really well is use the bully pulpit to shine light on new forms of education and give them some legitimacy."
Horn co-authored the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns with Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen and Curtis W. Johnson. Christensen is best known for the theory of disruptive innovation explained in The Innovator's Dilemma and its sequels, and in recent years he has identified both K-12 and higher education as prime candidates for disruption. As co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, Horn serves as the executive director of its education program and advocates for certain innovations.
Obama has already directed the U.S. Department of Education to develop a system for rating how well an education at different institutions pays off for students, a move that is within his executive power. Horn agrees with the political analysts who say the financial aid portion of Obama's proposals face poor odds of passing Congress. However, that might not be a bad thing, he said.
"I think it would make a lot of sense to introduce the ratings and not have them tied to financial aid so that first we can see, is this the ratings system we want? You might see a change in behavior just based on the ratings being available without it being tied to financial aid," Horn said.
A two-step approach would also introduce the ratings into the marketplace in a way that was less politically loaded, Horn said. "It could be more like the rankings from U.S. News -- and not the political football that ABC ratings in K-12 have become."
Even if it turns out that a financial impetus is required to propel students toward choices with a better justification, it would make sense to "do some tests with it before implementing it whole hog," he said.