Ever since President Obama announced in August 2013 his intention to develop a college ratings system, the higher education world has been waiting for the details. The release of a framework last month included a few, but many questions and concerns remain.
Now, college administrators wait for the next promised deadline — the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, when the ratings are supposed to be released.
Here's what we know for now:
The U.S. Department of Education's December release of a framework came after several delays. According to the department, the intention is to create a system that will put colleges into three categories: good, bad, and in-between.
Specifically, the department is considering a proposal to set a “substantial employment” threshold for graduates of a given college — maybe 200% of the poverty-level income. The substantial employment calculation, plus an analysis of long-term earnings of graduates, would be used to come up with a rating for each college’s so-called “labor market success.”
The ratings system is also expected to use measurements of college access, such as the net price to attend a certain school and the number of students receiving federal Pell grants. Other factors expected to be considered include the number of first-generation students and family incomes.
The case in favor
The key reasons why a ratings system is necessary: The Department of Education spends $150 million annually on higher education grants and loans, so accountability for that taxpayer funding is a priority. Also, prospective college students and their parents need better data for deciding between competing schools.
Other potential benefits of the college ratings plan: Because the data behind the ratings will be made public, and better data about colleges and college students will become available, third-party researchers and analysts will be able to compile their own ratings, rankings, and analysis.
The concerns and criticisms
In July 2014, 50 college presidents in Virginia — from both public and private institutions — wrote a letter to their congressional representatives and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with their objections to the proposed college ratings system. The letter outlined three main concerns: That the proposed ratings would discourage low-income and part-time student enrollment, overemphasize the earnings of graduates, and use measurements of graduation rates that aren’t fit to be used in a ratings system.
Republicans in Congress, led by Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), are threatening to block the college ratings plan, cutting off its funding.
Some critics have questioned the Department of Education's lack of willingness to talk about specific plans for the rating system, also inquiring as to whether or not it worked as closely as it should have with outside data experts.
Other critics, with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, contend that the proposed ratings do nothing to measure how a particular higher education institution affects student learning outcomes. Those critics say that instead of moving forward with the proposed ratings and their focus on college affordability and the employment wages of graduates, the Department of Education should throw its support behind the AAC&U student learning assessment, called Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education, or VALUE.
Additionally, some feel that a college ratings system would be unfair if it tried to compare graduates of programs in fields with high average incomes and fields with low incomes. Further complicating matters, federal data on graduation rates currently excludes part-time and transfer students.
This fall, after two years of debate and input from the higher ed community, the Department of Education should have all the information it needs to establish its college ratings program. At that point, with an established target in place, opponents, and critics — along with advocates and defenders — will have a chance for a more finely honed debate on the merits and flaws of the system.
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