What Should Be in the President’s College Ratings?

President Obama’s August announcement that his administration would work to develop a college rating system by 2015 has been the topic of a great deal of discussion in the higher education community. While some prominent voices have spoken out against the ratings system (including my former dissertation advisor at Wisconsin, Sara Goldrick-Rab), the Administration appears to have redoubled its efforts to create a rating system during the next eighteen months. (Of course, that assumes the federal government’s partial shutdown is over by then!)

As the ratings system is being developed, Secretary Duncan and his staff must make a number of important decisions:

(1) Do they push for ratings to be tied to federal financial aid (requiring Congressional authorization), or should they just be made available to the public as one of many information sources?

(2) Should they be designed to highlight the highest-performing colleges, or should they call out the lowest-performing institutions?

(3) Should public, private nonprofit, and for-profit colleges be held to separate standards?

(4) Should community colleges be included in the ratings?

(5) Will outcome measures be adjusted for student characteristics (similar to the value-added models often used in K-12 education)?

After these decisions have been made, then the Department of Education can focus on selecting possible outcomes. Graduation rates and student loan default rates are likely to be a part of the college ratings, but what other measures could be considered—both now and in the future? An expanded version of gainful employment, which is currently used for vocationally-oriented programs, is certainly a possibility, as is some measure of earnings. These measures may be subject to additional legal challenges. Some measure of cost may also make its way into the ratings, rewarding colleges that operate in a more efficient manner.

I would like to hear your thoughts (in the comments section below) about whether these ratings are a good idea and what measures should be included. And when the Department of Education starts accepting comments on the ratings, likely sometime in 2014, I encourage you to submit your thoughts directly to them!

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

5 thoughts on “What Should Be in the President’s College Ratings?”

  1. Your dissertation advisor may be right that college ratings are fraught with problems. There’s no doubt that Middlebury College will provide more “social capital” than Keene State College or Seton Hall, but that doesn’t mean that those “lower tiered” schools don’t offer some students incredible opportunity.

    1. Would rewarding colleges for social mobility (such as the number of Pell recipients or first-generation students served) help alleviate some of those problems?

      1. I agree that those are important variables. At small state colleges like mine, we’re here to “serve the people” not provide wealthy kids with the social connections to succeed on Wall Street (not that that’s a bad thing, just not what we do). We’re “service providers” as much as “college profs.”

      2. Thank you for your comments. It seems like the Administration is sensitive to these concerns, even if very few of them went to smaller state colleges. (I’m an alumnus of Truman State University in Missouri.) The difficult part will be figuring out how to not put these institutions at a disadvantage.

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