Reflecting on Ratings

A chief architect of the Obama administration’s College Scorecard and its recent executive actions on accreditation reflects on her tenure at the Education Department.

January 5, 2016
Jamienne S. Studley

When President Obama first mentioned his grand idea for the federal government to rate colleges and universities, Jamienne Studley had her doubts.

The No. 2 Education Department official overseeing higher education says she “started out as a skeptic about the project.”

“When I first heard about it, I did the same big gulp that people in higher ed land did,” said Studley, who is leaving her post as deputy under secretary of education next month after helping to lead the Obama administration’s ambitious second-term higher education agenda.

Studley was among the architects of the administration’s ill-fated ratings plan -- which morphed into the College Scorecard -- as well as its efforts to reform accreditation.

Reflecting on her two-and-a-half-year stint at the Education Department in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Studley said that her work on the ratings and College Scorecard project was the most personally satisfying.

In spite of how the ratings plan changed, she said, the final product “still meets the original objectives of increasing student information and [providing] the opportunity for public accountability. [That] feels pretty good.”

Studley said her own initial skepticism of the ratings project helped her “understand what [colleges’] concerns were. But it also meant that I was going on the same journey to see how we could get positive things out of that challenge and out of the materials and data that we had to work with.”

“The activity of listening and engaging that deeply with colleges and universities, and students, and trustees, and the legislative branch, and everybody else who was so eager to see more effective performance in higher ed … was phenomenally interesting to me. I liked that act of gathering [information] and listening -- and even taking the heat. People comment a lot now about [us] taking so much flak. But for me that was grist for the mill and a chance to get good ideas.”

Q. What’s ahead for the College Scorecard? What does it promise?

A. We have a huge outreach challenge to have it reach more students, so that’s another critical step for us going forward.

The other piece is accountability. While we are not -- for a variety of reasons -- in a position to link accountability in a direct financial way to [Scorecard] results, there are lots of other types of accountability. There’s journalistic accountability: you can now look at it and say more about institutions than you could, and shine a spotlight on both good actors and poor performers. States that are doing this themselves have another source of information and eventually those may link up -- some to their performance-based system and some in other ways. And my hope is that schools themselves will … use it to benchmark themselves and to ask questions. …

My favorite data point in the scorecard is the net price by quintile for low-income students. That number, what the two bottom quintiles are paying, is something around which an institution can rotate and plan. Some [colleges], I think, were very surprised to discover variations with possible peers.

Q. Meaning that they’re not doing very well by their lower- and middle-income students?

A. Exactly. They make very specific choices and that’s something that’s very much in their control. They can move merit-based aid that is going to higher-tiered students toward those students, which I think is a public policy plus.… Simply by saying, are we going to spend money … on food services -- and sushi bars -- or are we going to spend it by driving down our net price for the lowest two quintiles. I think’s a good kind of direction to go.

Q. One critique of the Scorecard is that it focuses largely on economic things. Is that a problem? What about learning and academic quality?

A. That is the [next] frontier, now that the Scorecard has taken its first step. We very strongly invited the higher ed community to populate the rest of [the Scorecard. We want] higher ed working with students so it’s comprehensible [to them]. And [we want higher ed working with] the workplace so that it’s career aware -- but not job driven. Carol Geary Schneider’s piece about student learning outcomes is exactly the kind of conversation that we’ve been hoping to have. …

People are saying, “Is college really necessary versus more trade- or job-based form[s] of education?” And while they’re all valuable and important, it’s very hard to understand the value of college on any level if the central portion of baccalaureate, liberal education -- and associate degrees -- is a hidden “we know it when we see it” [and] “you’ll be better off if you get it.”

And I don’t mean to trivialize the way higher ed describes it, but there’s not much more to put your fingers on. How much of it is the factor of prestige, connections, reputation, name recognition, the people you meet, the experiences you have? … Everybody would agree [that those factors seem] to have advantage, but is that the education part of it? And can you get that education somewhere else if that’s [what is] available to you? It’s a very complicated set of questions. …

Higher ed [should approach ways to gauge student learning outcomes] in a way that it finds meaningful and a serious contribution -- because the blunt instruments other people might design will be very frustrating to them. And we need it to round out these earnings measures, which are important and of interest to families and to the nation, no doubt about it, but they work much better if they are in a much broader context.

Q. How broken is accreditation? Do you think it’s as broken as the strongest critics say?

A. I don’t think it’s as broken as the most strident critics say it is. It is very slow to change, though, even within a higher ed universe that is very deliberate.

Accreditation -- in part because of the nature of the beast and the statutory way we go about it -- is not an easy thing to unpack. We create a system that is both slow and deliberate and indirect by statutory restriction. And then we expect people to be nimble and responsive. The outcomes issue is enormous there.

It’s no surprise that we’re spending so much of our time now thinking about results and outcomes. And trying to think how we can create results and outcomes that are not too blunt or reductionist.

At the very least, the floor of what is a respectable outcome must be much more consistent and much clearer and more predictable for policy purposes, for student choice purposes. When we say, “It’s accredited,” people think that means something about the quality of what you will get.

[Education Secretary] Arne [Duncan] spoke about [it] in July in his speech. And that’s really what we are hammering. … The accreditors all look at [student] outcomes in some fashion.

Where they don’t look at outcomes in measurable, metrical kind ways, we’re asking: “Could you? Where should you? How can you do that effectively for your programs?” And where they do, we’re saying: “Are they rigorous enough? And do you actually apply them? And do you follow them?”

It’s going to be tremendously exciting. That’s the piece that’s going to be hardest to step away from.

Q. Assuming we don’t see, for some time, a change to the Higher Education Act, what does that look like? Is it just public pressure on accreditors?

A. We’re looking at it in a number of different ways. The executive actions cover a variety of ways of moving forward, with and without congressional action. Things that seem quite practical also seem like they can make a real difference. Better coordination in what we tell each other. This is a case where we may be telling each other -- FSA, OPE and accreditors -- things that we need to know but there may be too much of it. The important triggers, the real warnings, may be lost in too much information flow. There had been a lot of caution about conversations among accrediting staff and accrediting agencies and FSA.

We’ve opened that door and they appreciate the fact there is more conversation, and we think there is a lot more we can do in more structured ways so we’re meeting with them around that. You will see everybody talking more about how accreditors handle outcomes and how they use outcomes, whether it’s institution specific or the outcomes they set across their field. And pushing them much harder to articulate for us how they do that and how that equates to a rigorous standard for participation.

There are questions that you’ve seen … about whether it would be good to have not just a pass/fail system but some other kind of recognition of quality so that we can pull the whole field forward to higher expectations and also possibly link that to flexibility in process. Much of that depends on statute. We’re looking very hard at whether there are other ways we can provide that room for agencies to really focus on the toughest institutions.

Q. It’s traditional for a Democratic administration to take heat from the Republicans, and vice versa. But in the last few years, we’ve seen this department take quite a bit of heat from the left -- Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example -- particularly on issues related to student debt. What has that pressure been like, and how much of it relates to the administration's switch to 100 percent direct lending?

A. I was here when we created direct lending and had two parallel systems for a while. And [while] being the responsible player, as you say, is a smart direction, it makes a lot of sense. But it does mean that we are both the student services arm and the banker at the same time. And it’s a challenge to do both of those effectively. On one level the toughest debates and challenges are with people where you agree about the objectives and are struggling about the how to get there and which is more important of the things we expect you do to both of: the enforcement or the service.

When I interviewed for this job, the White House personnel person said, “I don’t have any questions about particular policy, but what do you do when you can’t deliver what your friends want? What do you do when your friends are unhappy with what you’re doing?” That is a very right question. Because it’s a much hotter seat than when somebody you think is on the wrong track and not doing something that is going to serve the public is unhappy with you. That’s a righteous fight.

Q. Or maybe a badge of honor?

A. Exactly. The debt issues are incredibly complicated, from how the public should perceive debt -- is it a good investment in improving your life’s future or is it a gigantic danger to be avoided at all costs?

… We have a huge national press problem of hysterical overstatement of the $400,000 debt person and not the “I had $19 or $29,400 average debt and I got work and I paid it and I couldn’t do everything I wanted right away but it’s working out.” And when you listen to financial aid people, the people for whom we designed the ability to borrow are the most afraid to borrow anything. And they either work too much or go to a school that’s undermatched or they struggle to buy the textbooks and won’t borrow to be able to close the gap and complete their education ….

I’m less involved in the specific loan servicing contract issues or direct loans, but we really want to make it easier to understand what you’re getting into, have a fair deal while you’re doing it, and make repayment much clearer, easier, smoother so that that cycle operates. And back to accreditation and enforcement matters, get out of the system the places where we’re going to have the worst of the problems of debt without completion, which is the biggest problem in debt, as you know.

Q. There have been points where the higher ed world looked at this department [as if it believed too much] that the feds themselves have the answers to higher education’s problems. To what extent do you believe that there are federal answers to higher education’s problems? And is it important that whoever is in these jobs recognizes the limitations? And do you think this administration has acted too much like it has the answers?

A. It’s our job to have the objectives and the goals that we want. And to leave as much room for the how as is possible, navigating our statutes. But also especially whether people step up. … The more we can say we all need to get to this level of rigor, or we need to get to campus community life that is safe for everybody who is there, the less we have to prescribe. I’m sure there are great examples where the field has said, “We’ve got this. We know how to do this and we’re going to do this.” And sometimes we do it together and we put something out and they say, “No, that’s not going to work, but here’s something else that might,” and that would be the partnership that we would like to have.

Arne Duncan [put] emphasis on humility and that the field knows better how to do what they came to do. But they need to do it within the framework and both targets and constraints that we set to make sure that it’s within bounds -- resets the stage for that. We have to define where we’re going, but we have to respect -- whether it’s states or districts or higher ed -- for the how. And I think we really mean it. That cliché about the diversity of American higher education means that both on an aspirational and practical level, it’s hard to create a cookbook. In some cases we have a cookbook that we’re trying to work away from and be more flexible. In other places we’ve put out the invitation and we don’t get the uptake that we would like. But we respect those same notions that it should be at least a partnership, and ideally a lot of room for navigating within the goals and the edges that we establish.

Q. One tension … that played out in the administration is whether the Education Department is or should be a partner to colleges and universities or a regulator of colleges and universities. Which do you think it is? Is it both? Can it possibly be both? Are those roles necessarily in tension with each other?

A. My short answer is that we have to be a regulator and we would like to be a partner. A consequence of that is that when time is short or resources are constrained, you do what you have to do and you try to do what you would like to do.

There are some really good instances of partnering, sometimes the partnering comes later than people would like. We have to deal with a situation first and then we start having the conversations. Whenever possible, we like to do it the other way around. You may not expect this answer in this place, but you haven’t dwelled. … This is my third federal administration, and I was here in the Clinton years. [Negotiated rulemaking] was born out of the [1992] HEA and when we heard about it, we looked at it, tried to figure out where …. Over the years, even with all of its challenges and the time and formality that sometimes pinches, I have always thought -- and many other people here, on balance agree -- that the act of negotiating, in a structured way with everybody at the table who has a view, actually gets us to smarter plans than we would have had otherwise. That’s a hybrid: it’s a regulatory responsibility and the process is forced on us, but it leads to a partnership to try to get to yes. And we’ve gotten to consensus on some very hard things over time.

Q. Over the past few years, the department, starting with the previous administration, has been charging ahead into areas that have historically been off-limits, or left to higher education to decide. Is there a greater willingness now by the Education Department, whoever occupies it, to go farther and harder than was true before? Are there things that this administration has done that you think would have been stopped in the general counsel’s office 20 years ago when you were there?

A. We operate under a secretary who says, “Is it good for students?” … And if you start with what’s good for students, then you take the next step and say, “What do we need to do to serve students and the larger national interest in education?” And to the extent that it’s more complicated, there’s more risk to students, that deference to higher education and what’s best for students sometimes conflicts, it’s not a strategic difference, it’s our responsibility to say, “What tools do we have to do things that are good for students?” And we ought to be really sure it’s good for students and doesn’t backfire. We ought to be really sure it’s good for all students. The institutions are the deliverers of that education that’s good for students -- we’re not doing it -- so it has to work for them ultimately as well.

I think the courts have answered the question about whether we’ve gone too far. We use the tools at our disposal to get to where we want to go. To the extent that some of the tools are either missing or blunt or not quite what we would like, it’s also our job to go up and say, “We want to work with you on tools that will do the job and do it in the neatest, clearest possible way.” And that’s where we are on accreditation. We think there are some things that we could do that might be overall student serving and easier on institutions, more direct, but we don’t have those tools right now. But I’m pretty comfortable that we’re being aggressive for the right reasons.

Q. Was it difficult to move ahead on your overall agenda while also managing some of the big, unexpected or dramatic things that crop up on any given day here? For example, dealing with Corinthian.

A. Corinthian is both a time-consuming challenge and a policy-learning case study. I was able to concentrate on policy issues like Scorecard and accreditation and several others while others were doing Corinthian. We have enough depth that it wasn’t an either/or type question. That said, it’s a huge energy draw. And we’re hoping as a result of it, to figure out ways to get ahead of those issues so that we’re dealing with them in enforcement and management instead of in that kind of urgent crisis situation. It’s better for students and it’s better for us in terms of getting our agenda moved.

Q. What do you wish you had been able to get done that you ran out of time for?

A. There’s no particular thing. I wish that we had been able to move sooner on some of them, so that we would be that much further ahead. But the momentum right now for both of these two big projects that I mentioned is tremendous. The Scorecard: now that it’s up, we’re having conversations about everything from the data improvements to student use and following the analytics and how can we get it out into people’s hands. And accreditation is moving, as you can see. So it’s a good place to have both of those there, I’m eager to see how they take shape going forward. There’s, of course, a long list of would have been nice to spend more time on, ranging from civic engagement and the arts to the crosswalk with other benefits programs that low-income students depend on, which is a great conversation, and if I’m lucky I’ll be part of some of them over time.


Back to Top