Many in the higher education community have long dismissed the rankings created by U.S. News & World Report and others as subjective, ill-defined, and of little use in helping students and families choose an institution that best meets their needs.
But college and university presidents are taking the potential impact of President Obama’s proposed federal college ratings system very seriously. They and other higher education experts are weighing what such a system could do to the postsecondary landscape, and hoping the Obama administration’s planned listening tour of institutions will give them a chance to help shape the details of how it might work.
ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said some college and university presidents are still assessing how the ratings plan might impact the higher education community, while others already are “deeply worried about whether these ratings will pass any test of reasonableness.”
Broad said that colleges and universities remain committed to providing an affordable and quality postsecondary education to millions of Americans, and to being accountable for the federal dollars they receive. The Obama administration understandably wants to identify and punish any “bad actor” institutions that take in big quantities of federal dollars but graduate only small numbers of students and don’t provide a quality education, she said.
However, “the problem is when you do this with regulations, such as creating a ratings system, it casts a wide net that burdens all the good actors, too,” Broad said. Plus, the Obama administration’s desire to tie the receipt of federal student financial aid to its proposed rating system—something Congress would have to approve—“could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help,” she added.
Zakiya Smith, strategy director at Lumina Foundation and a former Obama administration senior policy advisor who focused on higher education matters, said college presidents and others in the higher education community will have ample opportunity to weigh in on how the rating system should be constructed. The fact that the White House is seeking input from the higher education community “is not playing politics, but an honest entreaty to the community to say, ‘How can we do this in a way that makes sense?’” Smith said, noting that President Obama has made it clear that he wants to use measurements that are appropriate to the unique missions of different types of institutions.
Matthew Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College (MA), said it is important for the administration’s rating system to take into account regional differences, not just sector differences.
Reed noted that states with a large number of strong four-year institutions, such as Massachusetts, have more options available for the high-achieving student, so community colleges enroll lower numbers of high-achieving students and have lower graduation rates. In states like North Dakota, where there are far fewer four-year college options within easy proximity, community colleges have much higher graduation rates.
“That means community colleges with the highest graduation rates in Massachusetts will look terrible compared to ones in the Dakotas,” Reed said.
Oregon State University President Edward J. Ray said he hopes that Obama administration officials will come up with a rating system that focuses on simple goals and “above-the-line or below-the-line performance by institutions,” not on trying to create a better, federal version of U.S. News-type rankings.
“With a rating system that focuses on above the line and below the line you could weed out a lot of bad performers,” Ray said. “A lot of this is about for-profits getting Pell Grant money and students not graduating and a lot of money going to a small number of unproductive institutions. You could use simple metrics to get at the issue of who is and is not performing.”
But Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College (MD), said he hopes the higher education community can yet persuade Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others in the Obama administration that devising a federal college rating system would be a mistake.
“These ratings schemes are often well intentioned, but they miss the mark and mislead people and confuse them terribly,” Ungar said.
If the rating system devised by the Obama administration endures through subsequent administrations, “the definitions of value may change, so there may be wild changes that occur in the ranking or rating of a particular college or university just on the basis of what is in fashion at the moment,” Ungar said.
ACE Senior Vice President Terry W. Hartle said he hopes the White House at least “peer reviews” the proposed formula or formulas before the ratings are calculated.
“The administration is going to do this, and it will use the data that is readily available, but which is, at best, incomplete,” Hartle said.
But what the administration won’t be able to do, Hartle predicted, is persuade Congress to go along with tying the ratings to eligibility for federal student financial aid.
“Once you publish the list of ratings, the shortcomings of the formula and the difficulties of tying a ranking system to student aid will be clearly revealed,” Hartle said. Morgan State University (MD) President David Wilson endorsed President’s Obama’s goal of making college education in America more affordable, noting that it’s a goal shared by Morgan State and the entire higher education community. But he added that the ratings plan has to take into account the special missions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other institutions that serve large numbers of minority and at-risk students.
“We have to make sure this rating system will carry an appropriate weight for institutions that enroll a disproportionate number of students on Pell Grants, that enroll a high percentage of minority students—institutions that are perhaps enrolling a high percentage of African American male students, who are a real challenge in terms of getting through institutions and across the finish line,” Wilson said. “We have to look at this in a very comprehensive way and ensure it is not a rating system that is only designed for those institutions that can go out there and select students who already are scoring at very high levels and are able to get through institution in record numbers.”
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said the higher education community should urge the administration to take a different tack, narrow its focus, and re-label its proposal for what it should be: a report about college cost and completion and/or a consumer red flag advisory system.
“I am optimistic that good-faith discussions backstage and vocal leadership from the higher education community about what this [ratings system] is and is not and can and cannot be, may in fact have some positive effect on the results,” Schneider said.
President Obama’s Higher Education Ratings Plan in a Nutshell
By the 2015 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education would develop a ratings system to evaluate higher education institutions according to “value,” using factors such as:
Tuition costs and the availability of scholarships
Access, as measured by, for example, the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants
Students’ post-graduation earnings
Student debt levels
Institutions will be ranked in “peer groups,” which are yet to be defined.
The system will initially rely on data from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS graduation-rate data include only first-time, full-time students, and do not include transfer students.
To develop the system, the Department of Education would plan public hearings to seek input from students, parents, college and university presidents, and others.
The Obama administration’s goal is to “transform the way federal aid is awarded,” tying the ratings system to federal aid by 2018. Doing so would require approval from Congress. Under such a plan, students who choose to attend colleges and universities rated by the new system as “high-performing” could receive more financial aid, including larger Pell Grants and better student loan rates.
Jonathan Riskind is ACE’s associate director of public affairs.