Ratings Release Draws Nearer

Education Department official gives earlier release date for college ratings while talking about quest for quality data and how to capture multiple student goals and outcomes.

February 11, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Officials with the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday revealed a slightly earlier estimate for when colleges may get a glimpse of the Obama administration's controversial college ratings.  

The department aims to come out with its first version of college ratings by late spring or early summer, according to Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, who spoke about the plan at the Association of Community College Trustees' National Legislative Summit.  

When the administration published its draft framework for the ratings plan in December, the timetable for release was pegged to the start of the 2015-16 academic year, and Mitchell has reiterated that deadline in other appearances.

The department didn’t offer any details on the summer estimate for release. And it's worth noting that the administration barely met its timeline for publishing the framework, after it twice delayed the date of release.

Also on Tuesday, Mitchell spoke about the limitations of creating a ratings system only with data collected through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which is run by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Those limitations are especially salient to the crowd of community college representatives Mitchell spoke to Tuesday. The IPEDS data doesn’t capture students who transfer between institutions, meaning it doesn’t properly count many of the students community colleges serve.

The Education Department is working to improve its data collection procedures, but in the meantime, officials are considering other options, Mitchell said. One possibility is substituting statewide data for IPEDS, he said.  

Higher education experts have pointed out the problems with the available data repeatedly since the administration started working on a ratings plan in 2013, said Mark Schneider, a vice president for American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

“Now as we’re getting closer and closer, the nightmare of poor data systems are coming home to roost,” he said.

Schneider, who led the National Center for Education Statistics for three years, doesn’t think using state data is practical. Some states have robust databases, but others don’t. And some data are owned by individual university systems, not states, he said. Schneider is skeptical the federal government could guarantee consistency if it has to integrate data of different quality and reliability.

But state level data is, in many cases, far better that what the federal government has, said Tod Massa, director for policy research and data warehousing with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

He said he was thrilled to hear the Education Department was considering using state data, a move he pushed more than a year ago during a technology symposium on the ratings plan.

“The notion that the department is going to rate our institutions with data that are far less adequate than ours is troublesome, to say the least,” Massa said Tuesday.

There’s a lot of potential to share metrics and best practices, if the federal government would sit down with states and create a partnership, he said.

Both Schneider and Massa said the data problem isn’t going to be solved soon -- or even in the two years before the Obama administration leaves office.

Collecting quality data takes time, Massa said. There are plenty of people who know a lot about higher education data policy and worry about the damage a poor ratings system could do.

“Their idea of ‘quickly’ is probably something longer than two years,” he said. “Let’s get it right and do no harm first.”

The administration has said it plans to seek legislation to tie the ratings system to federal aid in 2018. Mitchell said Tuesday, as he has before, that if the ratings are tied to financial resources, it will only be after the department tests out the system and colleges are comfortable with it. 

Aside from talking about data, Mitchell heard questions from the audience about the need to account for individuals who come to community college with the intention of only taking one course, and also students who enroll in a few skills courses at the request of their employer but never intend to get a certificate or degree. Another question focused on the large numbers of students who arrive with remedial needs, and the burden that puts on community colleges.

Mitchell acknowledged that the team working on the ratings is aware of those issues, even if he didn’t have any concrete answers to appease the concerns of those who spoke Tuesday. The ratings system won’t be perfect, but it has to start somewhere, Mitchell said.

“You have early versions of software that run, that basically do what they’re supposed to do, but are in constant improvement from the moment they’re released,” he said. “We anticipate the ratings system moving along in that same way.”


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