Inside Look at Ratings Plan

Education Department documents show money spent on college ratings as well as proposals to allow colleges to challenge and publicly annotate their data in the ratings.

April 20, 2015

The U.S. Department of Education has set aside more than $4 million to develop the Obama administration’s college ratings system, newly released federal documents show.

The department has hired a nonprofit research company to analyze data about colleges, test different ratings models and build a website for the ratings. It has so far paid at least $1.8 million for the firm, Research Triangle Institute, to get started on that work.

Inside Higher Ed obtained a copy of the department’s agreement with Research Triangle Institute (also called RTI International) last week after making a Freedom of Information Act request in January. The agreement, signed Dec. 31, expands an existing contract the department had with the firm for other data-related projects.

Aside from providing the first glimpse at the direct costs associated with the ratings system -- which the administration has previously declined to disclose -- the document is a snapshot of officials’ thinking about the ratings system as of the end of December.

The contract shows, for instance, that the department has considered forming a panel to vet the technical integrity of the ratings system, creating a formal process for colleges to challenge their data and allowing colleges to provide a narrative statement next to their ratings.

Funding the Ratings

The ratings work comprises just a fraction of RTI International's overall $81.4 million contract with the department for various government data projects.

The department’s December amendment to the contract adds more than $4 million worth of college ratings-related tasks, of which the department has provided funding for $1.8 million.

That figure reflects the “bulk of money that has been spent so far on ratings,” a department official, who declined to be named, wrote in an email Friday. Other costs, the official said, include staff time and events hosted by the department to solicit public feedback on the ratings system.  

The several million dollars of funding for the college rating system is relatively small in the context of the department’s roughly $70 billion budget. But critics of the administration’s ratings proposal have seized on the funding as means of blocking the department from carrying out the project.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, and other members of Congress have sought to pass legislation prohibiting the department from spending money on rating colleges, which they argue is an inappropriate role for the federal government.

After its request for $10 million to develop the ratings system went nowhere in Congress last year, the Obama administration dropped the request from this year’s budget proposal. Department officials said at the time that they could complete the ratings with existing resources and staff.

The department has previously declined to say how much it has spent -- or plans to spend -- on the ratings system.

Republicans on the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Education Department’s budget pressed Secretary Arne Duncan on the issue at a hearing last week. They demanded that the department provide the personnel costs associated with the rating system. Duncan did not provide an answer at the hearing, but a department official said the agency would respond to the request.

A Range of Possibilities

The contract outlines some of the features of a college ratings website that officials directed Research Triangle Institute to develop. The site must, for instance, be compatible with smartphones and provide an option for users to share their searches by email and on social media.

The list of website requirements, however, leaves open the possibility that colleges would be rated individually on various metrics or assigned an aggregate rating, or both.

The contract also features optional tasks relating to the ratings system that are at the discretion of department officials, such as forming a technical review panel or allowing colleges to challenge the data. It is unclear which of those tasks the department has actually directed the company to complete.

A department official cautioned that the inclusion of an optional provision in the contract “does not necessarily mean that they will all be exercised for the ratings project.”

Federal records that were posted to a government procurement database over the weekend show that Education Department officials modified the December ratings contract as recently as last week. But it was not immediately clear whether that change affected the college ratings provisions of the contract.

The December document does, meanwhile, provide some insight into the range of ratings system ideas that were under serious consideration at the time.  

Data Challenges for Colleges?

Department officials have contemplated a formal process for colleges to challenge or request corrections to the underlying data in the ratings system.

One optional contract provision, for instance, proposes to give all colleges “the opportunity to verify the cohorts of students and/or data and methodology used to calculate institution-level metrics.”

The quality of data underlying the college ratings system has been among the most contentious issues surrounding the proposal. Opponents of the ratings argue that federal data about colleges’ performance on many metrics are too incomplete to derive meaningful ratings. 

In addition, the department has considered, the contract shows, allowing colleges the opportunity to include a narrative statement next to its performance on the ratings system website. Such a feature would allow colleges “to provide context and explain how their unique circumstances may impact the ratings displayed,” the contract says.

Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said colleges would welcome the opportunity to review and annotate data in the ratings system.

“Institutions will regard that as welcome news,” he said. “This is something that we had asked for because institutions already have the opportunity to challenge department data or calculations in other areas like cohort default rates.”

Still, Hartle said, colleges worry that the department is moving ahead under a “compressed timeline” to get the ratings system done. The contract floats the possibility, for example, of forming a technical review panel in the spring of 2015 to vet the department’s ratings models, but that has not yet happened.

The contract shows that officials were looking to finalize a ratings methodology over the summer with a Sept. 1 public release date for “version 1.0” of the ratings website.

It’s not clear whether the department or the research firm is still following that schedule, but it is consistent with department officials’ public pledge to release ratings by the start of the 2015-16 school year.

“The first version of this will clearly be a beta version,” Hartle said. “They call it version 1.0 here, but it should really be called 0.5 and come with a 'use at your own risk’ warning, because they haven’t had the external consultation needed.”

Department officials have also considered, according to the contract, ways to deal with an influx of complaints about the ratings system once it is up and running as well as methods for gauging students' and families’ engagement with the site.


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