New College-Ratings Framework Released by U.S. Dept. of Ed.

By Caralee J. Adams — December 19, 2014 4 min read
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Guidance from the federal government to help prospective students choose a college based on value is one step closer to reality.

The U.S. Department of Education on Friday released a framework for its new college-rating system, including nearly a dozen measures reflecting access, price, and student outcomes. But officials are giving the public two months to weigh in before the administration fine tunes the ratings metrics and rolls out the system next year.

President Barack Obama unveiled the idea of a rating system in August of 2013, as part of his college-affordability agenda. It has since been the focus of much debate and skepticism in the higher education community. Concern has focused on how to accurately measure the value of a degree at a particular college and how to best track student outcomes after graduation.

The rating system would put colleges into broad categories—high-, middle-, and low-performing—rather than generating a numerical ranking. It would include degree-granting, undergraduate institutions, with separate grouping for four-year and two-year colleges.

The metrics being considered by the department include:

• Percent of students receiving Pell Grants;

• Family income;

• Family contribution toward college;

• Percent of students who didn’t have a parent who attended college;

• Average net price;

• Net price by family income;

• Completion rates;

• Transfer rates;

&bull: Labor market success;

• Graduate school enrollment;

• Loan performance outcomes.

The department said it is considering how to best present the information in a way that helps inform student choice and leads to increased transparency.

While today’s release provides additional details, some higher education officials remain wary of the concept. (See reaction in The Washington Post today and Inside Higher Ed.)

UPDATE (12:45 P.M.)

In a press call this morning, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell underscored the administration’s commitment to meeting its deadline to have the new college rating system up before the next academic year.

While the system is not subject to a formal regulatory process, Mitchell said the department has valued input and held 150 meetings, attended by 9,000 stakeholders over the last year as part of a national listening tour. More feedback is welcome, Mitchell said, as the metrics are refined and likely narrowed to fewer than the 11 released in the framework Friday.

Officials on the call acknowledged the limitation of the data available to measure access, affordability, and performance as part of the rating system. Much of the information used now by the federal government only tracks first-time, full-time students, for instance. Other data sets being discussed as part of the system would come from students who take out federal loans.

When asked for details about the data sources or measurement, such as where information will come from to track graduates’ income, Mitchell repeatedly replied: “We are still working on that.”

Issues about how to measure earnings has plagued the development process. Mitchell said the department is very concerned about creating a perverse incentive for colleges, such as eliminating teaching programs in favor of engineering because engineers earn more. “That is not what we are after,” he said. “We are not out to measure colleges that make graduates rich.”

Instead, the plan is to develop a “threshold measure” to ensure that a set percentage of students achieve income above a certain level that is some multiple of the poverty index or national minimum wage, he said.

The goal is not to make fine gradations between colleges, but rather identify the highest-performing schools and encourage the public to take note of institutions that need to up their game, said Mitchell.

The rating system will not be comprehensive, but is intended to be “clear, fair, and focused,” to help students know the track record of colleges before they enroll, said Mitchell. “The framework is a major sign of progress and step in improving accountability, transparency, and equity in higher education,” he said.

The system will be tested for a few years before any possible sanctions for low-performing schools are considered. The earliest that any financial accountability penalties could be imposed would be 2018 and that would require congressional action, said Mitchell.


News of the framework for rating colleges was met with resistance from some congressional Republicans.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee called the rating system a “fool’s errand” that should be stopped immediately.

“The same administration that created the debacle, now wants to arbitrarily grade and rank our nation’s diverse system of colleges and universities,” said Kline in a statement. “After working for more than a year on this unprecedented scheme, the department clearly hasn’t begun to figure it out.” Kline said common sense reforms of the law would be a better route to empower students and families with information to make informed decisions.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the rating system was “sure to fall flat on its face” and was unnecessary. “I can’t support letting Washington bureaucrats use taxpayer dollars to fund a higher education popularity contest,” he said in a statement.

Rating colleges is another part of American life which the federal government has no business meddling in, added Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.