The Non-Ratings Future

The fight over college ratings is over -- but what do institutions and others want to see in the consumer tool the Obama administration is developing in their place?

August 12, 2015

After more than two years of anxiety over how the Obama administration planned to judge their institutions, many college and university leaders exhaled deeply earlier this summer when federal officials dropped their plan to create a college ratings system.

Many colleges and universities were fiercely opposed to the ratings plan. And it had become among the most contentious fights between colleges and the Obama administration.

Now, as the Education Department gets ready to unveil, in the coming weeks, its ratings replacement -- an online college comparison tool -- the project is hardly registering as a blip on the radar screen of many college leaders.

At the same time, some advocacy groups and public university leaders are pressing the department to include certain information in the new consumer tool -- even if the new website won’t tell consumers whether a certain college’s performance is good, bad or middling, as the administration once proposed.

With the stakes so much lower for colleges, though, the lobbying against new federal accountability tools has largely dissipated. Some of the most vocal critics of the ratings plan have turned down their rhetoric when it comes to the replacement consumer tool.

“This has not been a front-burner issue for most college and university leaders,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, which praised the administration’s retreat on ratings this summer.

“The simple matter is that giving … accurate and meaningful information to students and families is a good and meaningful thing to do,” he said. “If they find a way to package and deliver it to students in a way that helps them make an informed choice about postsecondary options, it will be an important step forward.”

The association representing private colleges in Washington, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, was perhaps the most vociferous ratings opponent.

A spokesman, Pete Boyle, said last week that the group had not discussed how the Education Department should structure its new consumer tool, aside from asking officials to be sure to present graduation rates in four-, five- and six-year periods.

“When students and families are considering a higher education investment, they should have a picture of how long it takes most students to complete at a given institution,” Boyle said in an email.

Private college presidents had previously said they weren’t opposed to the government putting out more data on their institutions -- but they objected to the government assigning it meaning or judgment.

After dropping the college ratings proposal, which the Obama administration had billed as a way to hold colleges more accountable for the federal funds they use, Education Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this month outlined a series of other ideas on accountability -- most of which would require congressional action.

Duncan briefly described the new consumer tool as a way to provide students and families with “comparative information on outcomes and college value.”

It’s not clear which data the department will ultimately publish about colleges when it unveils the new consumer tool in the coming weeks. But the department is choosing from among the same data points that were floated for the ratings system, an official said.

The Education Department is limited by what data it already collects from colleges, which are already available in large part online. But the department has, over the past several years as part of the ratings project, explored ways to pair existing data sources to create new data points about a college -- like, for example, combining its database of student loan recipients with earnings data collected by the Social Security Administration.

Department officials have also indicated that they’re willing to turn to nonfederal sources of data. For example, the department has recently purchased data from the National Student Clearinghouse to calculate graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients. A procurement document about that transaction stated that the department would use that information in the ratings system, but department officials cautioned earlier this year that the document did not actually reflect any final decision about what data it planned to use.

Advocates for low-income students have long pushed for the Education Department to publish the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients at each college. Congress has also requested that the department make such data available, but the department until recently had no way to track whether the students to whom it provides Pell Grants end up graduating.

Another possible source of data for the consumer information tool is the Student Achievement Measure, a joint project of several higher education associations. The project, led in part by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, relies on college-submitted data to create more robust completion rates than those of the federal government, which captures data only for the minority of students who are attending college for the very first time and are enrolled full-time.

Education Department officials indicated in December that they were considering incorporating the Student Achievement Measure data into the ratings system.

Whereas some private college presidents might view the collapse of the ratings system as a victory, some public university leaders are seeing the new consumer tool as just one step in the feds’ doing more on college accountability.

Jeff Lieberson, spokesman for the public and land-grant university group, said that in addition to urging the Education Department to use the SAM data in its consumer tool, the association also plans to continue its push to raise the federal performance standards of colleges that receive federal student aid.

Although APLU did not support the Obama administration’s ratings system directly, it made an alternative proposal under which the federal government would judge colleges based on certain metrics, including SAM completion data, loan repayment rate, and levels of employment among graduates.

F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, said in an interview earlier this month that he supported the new consumer tool but said that the federal government needs to do far more to hold colleges and universities accountable for outcomes.

“I was disappointed in the retreat” on college ratings, Alexander said. “I don’t think they’ve fully retreated. Maybe this college scorecard can get at some of the kind of accountability we should all be working to provide for our parents and students.”

Aside from public universities, other groups have also been weighing in on what they want to see in the new consumer information tool.

Consumer advocates are pushing the Education Department to flag colleges that are under investigation or that have been sued by state regulators.

“Students deserve to know when a college’s practices are under heightened scrutiny from federal and state regulators, just as investors in publicly traded for-profit colleges are required to be notified of such events,” a coalition of groups, led by the Institute for College Access and Success, wrote in a letter last month.

Aside from the data points, though, a remaining question for the consumer tool is whether students will actually use it.

Federal government websites haven’t historically been the go-to source of information for many low-income students considering college, according to Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network.

“There’s a wealth of information, but it’s not very user-friendly,” she said of the federal government’s current tools, like College Navigator and the College Scorecard. “We can surmount that problem, and I think the department has given serious thought to this.”

“You need a good product and you need to market it well,” she said.


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