The U.S. Department of Education has retreated from its controversial plan to create a giant college-ratings system, top officials revealed on Wednesday. Instead, by late summer the department is now promising to produce a customizable, consumer-oriented website that won’t include any evaluations of colleges but will contain what one official described as "more data than ever before." In effect, it will be a ratings system without any ratings.
The as-yet-unnamed new system will allow students and others to compare colleges "on whatever measures are important to them," said Jamienne S. Studley, deputy under secretary of education.
The proposed federal ratings have been contentious since the moment they were announced. In Congress, Republicans in particular have introduced measures to keep the department from spending money to develop them. And many college leaders and higher-education associations have questioned the department’s capacity to devise an accurate or fair system.
A number of academic researchers have raised similar concerns. As recently as last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s education committee, predicted that the ratings would "collapse under their own weight."
Ms. Studley and Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, briefed The Chronicle on the department’s plans on Wednesday afternoon. They offered the briefing on the condition that reporters refrain from contacting other people for reaction until an embargo on the announcement lifted, at midnight on Wednesday, because department officials were still briefing key constituencies.
It is clear, however, that the department’s new direction was influenced by the comments and criticisms about the proposed system that have been aired over the past year and a half. For instance, as recently as December, the department said it was "considering three rating levels — high-performing, low-performing, and those in the middle" — to assess colleges on varying measures.
But Ms. Studley said the department had now decided to proceed with this different tactic because "we really heard that what people want is the customizable approach." As with the department’s College Scorecard, the new website may include ancillary data that put the customized data into context, by, for example, showing a college’s graduation rate in relation to a national average.
Mr. Mitchell said the department was "still discussing" what specific data would be included in the system, but he said the intention was to give students, families, policy makers, and others the kind of information that would allow them to "compare college costs and outcomes."
He said categories that the department discussed back in December were still under consideration. Those include data on graduates’ earnings, loan-repayment rates, and information that could be drawn from sources other than the department’s own databases. In that respect, the new system will probably include more information than can now be found in the College Scorecard or other consumer-oriented sites, like College Navigator.
In March an official in the department said it was considering creating two different rating systems, one for consumers based on raw metrics and another designed to hold colleges accountable for student outcomes that would include adjusted metrics based on institutional and student characteristics.
‘Not Giving Up on Accountability’
Mr. Mitchell insisted that the decision to make the consumer site the top priority had not altered the department’s interest in both objectives. "We’re not giving up on accountability at all," he said. The consumer tool, he said, "will become a form of public accountability."
He said the department would be drawing on the expertise of the Obama administration’s new U.S. Digital Services team to help create the site and ensure it is user-friendly. The department also plans to make the data and programming tools for the site available to outside developers, companies, and nonprofit organizations, so that other parties could also create apps and tools using data from the new site.
Mr. Mitchell stopped short of saying that the department had given up on its original goal of creating an actual rating system, but he suggested that that project was on the back burner. "We’re going to be focusing on the consumer-focused tool for this year’s project," he said.
While acknowledging that the new site represented a tacit admission of a new direction for the scorecard effort, Mr. Mitchell said he did not consider it a setback. "This is the exact opposite of a collapse," he said. "This is a sprint forward."
Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.