Is the Term “College Ratings” Toxic?

In what will come as a surprise to few observers, much of the higher education community isn’t terribly fond of President Obama’s plan to develop a college ratings system for the 2015-16 academic year. An example of this is a recently released Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey of college provosts and chief academic officers. Only a small percentage of the 829 individuals who returned surveys were supportive of the ratings and thought they would be effective, as shown below:

  • 12% of provosts agree the ratings will help families make better comparisons across institutions.
  • 12% of provosts agree the ratings will reflect their own college’s strengths.
  • Just 9% agree the ratings will accurately reflect their own college’s weakness.

There is some variation in support by type of college. Provosts at for-profit institutions and public research universities tended to offer more support, while those at private nonprofit institutions were almost unanimous in opposition. But regardless of whether provosts like the idea of ratings, the plan seems to be full steam ahead.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) took a productive step in the ratings conversation by releasing their own plan for accountability and cost-effectiveness. This plan centers on three components that could be used to allocate financial aid to colleges: risk-adjusted retention and graduation rates, employment/graduate degree rates, and default/loan repayment rates. Under APLU’s proposal, colleges could fall into one of three groups: a top tier that receives bonus Title IV funds, a middle tier that is held harmless, and a bottom tier that loses some or all Title IV funds.

To me, that sounds like a ratings system. But APLU took care not to call their plan a ratings system, and viewed the Administration’s plans as being “extremely difficult to structure.” It seems like the phrase “college ratings” has become a toxic idea; so rather than call for a simplified set of ratings, APLU discussed the use of “performance tiers.” This sounds a little like the Common Core debate in K-12 education, in which some states have considered renaming the standards in an attempt to reduce opposition.

It will be interesting to see how the discussion on college ratings moves forward over the next several weeks, particularly as more associations either offer their plans or decry the entire idea.  The technical ratings symposium previously scheduled for January 22 will now occur on February 6 on account of snow, and I’ll be presenting my thoughts on how to develop a ratings system for postsecondary education. I’ll post my presentation on this blog at that time.

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.

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