The Rise and Fall of Federal College Ratings

President Obama’s 2013 announcement that a set of federal college ratings would be created and then tied to federal financial aid dollars caught the higher education world by surprise. Some media coverage at the time even expected what came to be known as the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) to challenge U.S. News & World Report’s dominance in the higher education rankings marketplace. But most researchers and people intimately involved in policy discussions saw a substantial set of hurdles (both methodologically and politically) that college ratings would have to clear before being tied to financial aid. This resulted in a number of delays in the development of PIRS, as evidenced by last fall’s delayed release of a general framework for developing ratings.

The U.S. Department of Education’s March announcement that two college ratings systems would be created, one oriented toward consumers and one for accountability purposes, further complicated the efforts to develop a ratings system. As someone who has written extensively on college ratings, I weighed in with my expectation that any ratings were becoming extremely unlikely (due to both political pressures and other pressing needs for ED to address):

This week’s announcement that the Department of Education is dropping the ratings portion of PIRS (is it PIS now?) comes as little surprise to higher education policy insiders—particularly in the face of bipartisan legislation in Congress that sought to block the development of ratings and fierce opposition from much of the higher education community. I have to chuckle at Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell’s comments on the changes; he told The Chronicle of Higher Education that dropping ratings “is the exact opposite of a collapse” and “a sprint forward.” But politically, this is a good time for ED to focus on consumer information after its recent court victory against the for-profit sector that allows the gainful employment accountability system to go into effect next week.

It does appear that the PIRS effort will not be in vain, as ED has promised that additional data on colleges’ performance will be made available on consumer-friendly websites. Although I am skeptical that federal websites like the College Scorecard and College Navigator directly reach students and their families, I am a believer in the power of information to help students make at least decent decisions, but I think this information will be more effective when packaged by private organizations such as guidance counselors and college access organizations.

On a historical note, the 2013-2015 effort to rate colleges failed to live up to efforts a century ago, in which ratings were actually created but President Taft blocked their release. As Libby Nelson at Vox noted last summer, President Wilson created a ratings committee in 1914, which then came to the conclusion that publishing ratings was not desirable at the time. 101 years later, some things still haven’t changed. College ratings are likely dead for decades at the federal level, but performance-based funding or “risk-sharing” ideas enjoy some bipartisan support and are the next big accountability policy discussion.

I’d love to be able to write more at this time about the path forward for federal higher education accountability policy, but I’ve got to get back to putting together the annual Washington Monthly college rankings (look for them in late August). Hopefully, future versions of the rankings will be able to include some of the new information that has been promised in this new consumer information system.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.