SHAFAQNA – By the start of next school year, the federal government plans to rate colleges on access, affordability and student outcomes — possibly relying on graduates’ employment and earnings data. Schools could be rated as high performers, low performers, or “in the middle,” according to a “draft framework” of the ratings plan that the Obama administration is releasing Friday. The document, essentially a status report on an initiative President Obama announced in August 2013, leaves many questions unanswered. But it makes clear that the Education Department still intends to assume a new role as an arbiter of the performance of thousands of colleges and universities.
“Designing a new college ratings system is an important step in improving transparency, accountability, and equity in higher education,” said Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education. “The public should know how students fare at institutions receiving federal student aid, and this performance should be considered when we assess our investments and set priorities.”
Mitchell acknowledged Thursday that the department is deliberating key issues: Which metrics will be used? How will colleges be grouped for comparison? How will they be given credit for improvement? What does “in the middle” mean, the middle 50 percent or the middle 90 percent? Will each college receive a single composite rating, multiple ratings — or both?
The administration is seeking public input by Feb. 17 on several potential metrics it could use to rate schools.
●On accessibility, it is weighing the share of students who have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants; the pattern of expected family contributions to tuition; the distribution of students in groupings by family income; and the share of students whose parents did not attend college.
●On affordability, it is considering statistics on average net price and the net price paid by families at various income levels.
●On outcomes, it is considering graduation rates, transfer rates (for community colleges), graduate school attendance, loan repayment and “labor market success.” The latter, possibly including federal employment and earnings data, could be the most controversial element.
One of the few things that appears to be settled is that the government plans to rate four-year colleges and two-year colleges, but not schools that only offer graduate degrees.
Some higher education leaders say the very idea of government ratings is flawed.
“What we have repeatedly said is the federal government ought to provide lots of information, but not be in the position of picking winners and losers,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents about 1,000 private schools. This view is shared by many congressional Republicans.
Others say the administration faces a challenge of immense complexity in figuring out how colleges should be sorted and measured, especially if it is relying on data of uncertain quality.
“They have produced a thoughtful framework that demonstrates extensive consultation,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents from public and private sectors. “But it only serves to underscore our concern that the department lacks the data and the time needed to do this well.”
Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland, has backed the ratings initiative from the beginning. Told about the framework, Loh said Thursday he still supports the federal effort to analyze college outcomes.
“The symbolism is almost as important as whatever practical impact it has,” Loh said. “The message it is sending is, ‘We want more accountability on the basis of results.’ ”
The department circulated to reporters a “fact sheet” about the draft framework in advance of its release. In many respects, it echoes a document the White House released when Obama spoke about the initiative last year in Buffalo, N.Y.
“We don’t know a whole lot more than we did in August 2013,” said Warren, one of several higher education leaders briefed on the framework Thursday.
Mitchell, a former president of Occidental College in California, said the department has consulted with “close to 9,000 people” about the ratings. In the next two months, it will hear from even more. Then there will be an all-out sprint to decide on a formula and publish ratings ahead of the next school year.
“This is hard work. It’s complicated work,” Mitchell said. “And we want to do everything we can to get version 1.0 as right as we can.”
Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.