The more expensive a purchase, the more important it is to be a smart consumer. Many Americans value labeling and rankings from food (nutrition labels) to appliances (energy ratings) to vehicles (gas mileage and crash safety) to health plans (Obamacare’s bronze, silver, gold, and platinum). Yet for one of the most expensive purchases a person will ever make – a college education – there is a dearth of reliable and meaningful comparable information.
In August, President Obama directed the U.S. Department of Education to develop a federal college ratings system with two goals: (1) to serve as a college search tool for students and (2) to function as an accountability measure for institutions of higher education.
Under the president’s proposal, ratings will be available for consumer use in 2015, and by 2018, they would be tied to the colleges’ receipt of federal student aid. Many colleges and universities have been protesting ever since, especially about the accountability goal.
But improving the information imbalance about higher education outcomes is a key step toward improving graduation rates and slowing the rise in student loan debt. Although accountability mechanisms are a complex issue that may well take somewhat longer than 2018 to develop, student advocates agree on the following: We must move forward now with the multifactor rating information that higher education consumers desperately need. Furthermore, the administration’s rating system should provide comparable data on several factors relevant to college choice so that students can choose which are most important to them, rather than imposing the government’s judgment about which handful of factors should be combined into a single institutional rating.
As we evaluate the case for federal consumer ratings, let’s first set aside the 15 percent of college students who attend the most selective institutions and enjoy generally very high graduation rates. They may feel well-served by rankings like Barron’s and U.S. News, which emphasize reputation, financial resources, and admissions selectivity.
But for the 85 percent of students who attend non- or less-selective institutions, the institution they choose has far greater consequences. For these “post-traditional” students, college choice could mean the difference between dropping out with an unmanageable debt load or graduating with a degree and moving on to a satisfying career.
To share a real example, consider three Philadelphia universities: a suburban private, a Catholic private, and an urban state. These institutions are all within 30 miles, enroll students with similar academic characteristics, and serve similar percentages of Pell-eligible students. If you are a local, low-income student of color who wants to attend college close to home, how should you decide where to go?
What if you knew that the suburban private school’s graduation rate for underrepresented minority students (31 percent) scored much lower than the Catholic private (54 percent) and urban state school (61 percent)? Or that the urban state and private Catholic schools have lower net prices for low-income students? Would that affect your choice? (Thanks to Education Trust’s College Results Online for these great data.)
A rating system with multiple measures (rather than a single one) could greatly help this student. Armed with facts about comparable graduation rates, admissions criteria, and net prices, she can investigate her options further, ask informed questions, and ultimately make a stronger decision about which institution is the best fit for her
A ratings system designed for the 85 percent of students going to less-selective institutions will help students get the information most important to them. Many consumer rating schemas include multiple measures. Car buyers can compare fuel efficiency, price and safety ratings as well as more subjective ratings of comfort or “driver experience” from a variety of sources. Some buy Honda Civics for gas mileage and safety, others choose more expensive options for luxury features or handling.
Similarly, prospective college students need to know not just about accessibility/selectivity (average GPA, SAT/ACT scores), but also about affordability (net price by income tier, average student loan debt, ability to repay loans) and accountability (graduation rates by race and by income). The information should be sortable by location (to aid place-bound students) and by institution type (two-year, four-year, public, private) for students to compare side by side.
The data to fuel the rating system are for the most part already available, although some are in need of improvement. As is now widely acknowledged, we must change the federal calculation of graduation rates as soon as possible to account for part-time and transfer students, and we must collect and report institutional Pell Grant recipient graduation rates as part of the federal data system (IPEDS). Over the long term, we should also find a valid way to assess work force outcomes for students.
But let’s not delay a ratings system that will serve students any further. Once the system is up and running, we can turn to the more complex and politically difficult question of how to use federal financial aid dollars to incentivize better institutional outcomes.
Carrie Warick is director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network, which advocates on behalf of low-income and underrepresented students.
While there is heated debate over how best to fix America’s higher education system, everyone agrees on the need for meaningful reform. It’s difficult to argue against reform in the face of college attainment rates that are stalled at just under 40 percent and the growing number of graduates left wondering whether they will ever find careers that allow them to pay off their mounting debts.
Any policy debate should start with a clear picture of how the dollars are being spent and whether that money is achieving the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to answer many of the most basic questions for students, families and policy makers who are investing significant time and money in higher education.
During the recent State of the Union address, President Obama talked about shaking up the system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value. Though he provided little detail, this most certainly referred to the broad vision for higher education reform he outlined over the summer centered around a new a rating system for colleges and universities that would eventually be used to influence spending decisions on federal student financial aid.
However, the President’s proposal rests on a data system that is imperfect, at best. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said of the President’s plan, “we need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences.”
The American Council on Education, which represents the presidents of more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions, including two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities, agrees on the need for better data as well.
A senior staff member at ACE has been quoted to say that “if the federal government develops a high-stakes ratings system, they have an obligation to have very accurate data,” and that he was “surprised that anyone would think it controversial that having such data is a prerequisite.”
In order to bridge the data gap, we introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would make the complete range of comparative data on colleges and universities easily accessible to the public online and free of charge by linking student-level academic data with employment and earnings data.
For the first time, students, and policy makers, would be able to accurately compare -- down to the institution and specific program of study -- graduation and transfer rates, frequency with which graduates go on to pursue higher levels of education, student debt and post-graduation earnings and employment outcomes. Such a linkage is the best feasible way to create this data-rich environment.
None of these metrics is currently available to those seeking to evaluate a school or program, though plenty of misleading data are out there.
For example, Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts school in Oregon, was assessed with a 0 percent graduation rate by the U.S. Department of Education. This is because the department's current metrics account only for first-time, full-time students, and Marylhurst serves nontraditional students who are part time or have returned to school later in life. Schools like this that serve nontraditional students -- who now make up the majority of all students -- don’t get credit for their success, at least not according to current federal evaluations.
With so many in the higher education community bemoaning the lack of quality data, and clear solutions forward on how to attain better data, why hasn’t it happened?
A major part of the answer: institutional self-interest. Every school in the country has widely disparate performance outcomes depending on the category, and many college presidents are in no hurry to make their less-than-appealing outcome data available for public scrutiny.
There’s a fear that students and families will vote with their pocketbooks and choose different schools that better meet their needs. The abundance of inaccurate and incomplete data provides institutional leaders with a line of defense: so long as such data are the norm upon which they are ranked and rated, they can defend themselves on the basis of flawed methodology.
Not all schools fear the implications of better quality data; in fact, many schools crave these data and want them made public. They know they’ll stack up well against their competition.
Moreover, many schools realize that getting better data is critical to helping identify what’s working and what’s not for their students in order to build stronger programs. Nevertheless, some of the “Big Six” higher education associations still cling to the status quo and represent a key challenge to realizing these commonsense reforms.
It is long past time for these important actors to look away from their self-interest and toward what’s in America’s collective interest -- a future where higher education produces better outcomes for students and the economy -- by supporting the Know Before You Go Act.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is an Oregon Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Florida Republican.
Last month the White House hosted a higher education summit to draw attention to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. The summit focused in particular on “undermatching,” in which high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to highly selective colleges, and instead attend less competitive institutions.
It is without question that all students deserve a chance to attend a college that will give them the best shot in life, and I applaud efforts to better inform students about their choices. However, while we are rightly concerned about directing more underserved students to selective colleges, we should also recognize that sending more students to these colleges will not improve the overall quality of our higher education system.
The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges. If we want to improve educational outcomes among these groups of students, then we need to improve the colleges so many of them will attend.
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
So how can community colleges deliver better quality for their students? It will not be easy. Over the last 15 years, faculty and administrators have worked tirelessly to implement reforms in teaching and support services. These efforts have failed to raise completion rates.
A critical reason for this disappointing outcome is that reform initiatives have focused too narrowly on one aspect of the student experience, such as entry, remedial education or the first semester. While many initiatives have led to some success for targeted students, these improvements have been too small and too short-lived to affect overall college performance.
Research conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College and others makes abundantly clear that improving services like developmental education is necessary but not sufficient: the entire student community college experience must be strengthened.
Some community colleges are beginning to recognize this imperative, and are entering a new phase of far more comprehensive and transformative reform. In particular, some are at the forefront of implementing what CCRC terms the guided pathways model.
That approach responds to the fact that most community college students need far more structure and guidance; it attends to all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion. The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina's Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) -- perhaps the most ambitious example of a comprehensive approach to the community college student experience -- incorporates many elements of the guided pathways model. And CUNY’s ASAP program, which like Guttman takes a holistic approach to student success, has significantly improved associate degree completion rates.
Ambitious and comprehensive reforms are rare for good reason -- they are risky and difficult to implement. But they also offer the possibility of transformative improvement. Our frustration with the progress of reform in community colleges is not because skilled and dedicated people have not tried; rather, the reforms themselves have been self-limiting.
President Obama has rightly asked the nation to attend with renewed urgency to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. But the focus on undermatching is driven partly by a perception that the distribution of quality among colleges and universities is and will remain fixed.
This need not be so. Bold, large-scale reforms can improve institutions across the higher education system so that no matter where our neediest students enroll, they are ensured the best possible chance of success.
Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College Columbia University.