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Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell and Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley, who have led the college ratings project, listen to audience concerns at a conference on historically black colleges this fall.

Michael Stratford

The federal government will not compare colleges or pass judgment on their relative merits as part of the ratings system the U.S. Department of Education plans to release before the end of the summer, department officials said Wednesday.

But the department isn't bailing on the idea entirely, as some would have liked.

Instead, the system will be more of a consumer-facing tool that students, their families and high school guidance counselors can use to learn more about how undergraduate institutions stack up, said Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education.

“We want to empower them to make comparisons based on measures that matter to them,” Mitchell said.

The new tool will feature a broad range of data about college costs and outcomes, officials said, some of it publicly available for the first time. That information will be available to researchers, colleges and others, who can use it to rate colleges and compare them against one another.

“It’s a chance for institutions to get better,” said Jamienne S. Studley, the deputy under secretary.

The department, however, will not create a scoring system for colleges at this point. That means no singular rating or set of ratings that would group colleges into high-performing, low-performing and middle categories, as department officials previously said they were considering.

The department announced this significant shift in its approach to the ratings in a Wednesday afternoon call with Inside Higher Ed, on the condition that the news not be shared until Thursday. (Click here for a Thursday blog post by Studley.)

The move toward a primarily consumer-facing tool rather than a ratings system with teeth is a departure from the rhetoric President Obama used to describe the plan when he unveiled it, almost two years ago.

“What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” Obama said at the time.

The president also proposed linking the ratings system to institutions' receipt of federal financial aid. But that would require the approval of the U.S. Congress -- always a long shot, and even more so after Republicans took control of both chambers last year.

Colleges and their proxies in Washington pushed back on the plan from day one. So did congressional Republicans, who have sought to prevent federal funding from being used for the creation of the ratings.

Complaints about the proposed accountability system included concerns about whether the federal government could generate data that are complete enough to accurately measure the performance of colleges. Firing back was Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, who said the higher ed lobby was “propping up the status quo.”

And supporters of the rating system noted that some higher education leaders have long fought against the feds collecting more student-level data, which could be used to learn about how students fare in the job market.

Another widely cited concern has been whether the ratings could account fairly for the differences among institutions. Many wondered how to compare colleges across geographic areas, with widely varying student populations, missions and budget situations. How to rate cash-strapped, open-access community colleges that serve local areas and don’t compete for students? And would historically black colleges be rated against each other in a separate category or lumped in with other types of institutions?

Studley and other department officials spent much of the last 22 months hearing those and many other concerns, at public forums, from written comments and in meetings with a wide range of people, including many who work in higher education.

“We’ve heard from thousands,” Mitchell said. “The needs of students are very diverse. The means they use to pick a college vary widely.”

Following Through

The change in plans for the ratings might not be a surprise to some, as the task increasingly appeared to be Herculean, if not quixotic. At times department officials seemed to acknowledge they were facing an uphill battle.

Even so, many higher education leaders will welcome a consumer-facing tool that has less punitive potential. And department officials can make a good case that they listened in all those public forums. But some consumer groups and think tanks will be disappointed that the White House has tabled its stab at a federal form of performance-based funding for higher education.

Mitchell signaled that the debate over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the law that governs federal financial aid, would be where the drive for new public accountability systems would occur.

“We need Congress’s help,” he said.

Department officials did not say which data would be used to create the final system. Some of those decisions have yet to be completed, they said. But they promised that the metrics will be ready by the end of the summer.

Last December the department released a ratings framework. The 11 categories of data in that document remain the basis for what will emerge in the next couple months, according to Mitchell and Studley.

Those 11 data points are grouped into three broad areas: college access, affordability and performance. They include measures of net price, the percentage of a college’s students who receive Pell Grants, completion and transfer rates, and former students’ employment outcomes, such as earnings.

The final product will be customizable, said Mitchell, and will “empower consumers to make their own decisions.”

It will join other attempts by the White House to get more information about colleges in front of students and others who care about higher education. Those efforts include the interactive College Scorecard and a website the department and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs created specifically to help recipients of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The Obama administration also appears to be closing in on successfully launching its gainful employment accountability system, which goes live in July and is primarily aimed at for-profit institutions.

The ratings will be an “an important contribution to the suite of tools,” said Mitchell, and not just for consumers. “The data will be as interesting to institutions as they are to students.”

The department plans to disseminate the ratings far and wide. Mitchell said officials will work with college advising organizations and developers of web and smartphone apps to make sure the data get into the hands of students and their families.

“We are going to do what we set out to do,” he said, by releasing a “tool kit that provides for public accountability.”

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