Government

Education Dept. Considers Creating Not 1 but 2 College-Ratings Systems

March 16, 2015

The Education Department, under continued fire over its planned college-rating system, is considering creating two systems, an agency official said at a policy briefing here on Monday.

The first ratings system would be geared toward consumers and be based on raw outcomes metrics. The second would be geared toward policy makers and researchers, and would rely on metrics adjusted for student and institutional characteristics, the official told attendees at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual policy briefing. Only the second system would be used to measure accountability.

The shift appeared designed to answer criticism that the department was trying to do too much with one system. In her remarks, the official — Melanie Muenzer, deputy assistant secretary for planning and policy development — noted the "inherent tensions" in crafting a system that both guides consumer behavior and holds colleges accountable for student outcomes.

"It’s hard to develop a system that addresses both," Ms. Muenzer said.

In a comment on the proposed system, sent last month, a group of think tanks and advocacy groups urged the department to either "narrow the scope of the ratings to develop one system to address one purpose, or design different rating systems that use common data while being tailored to each purpose."

But one higher-education lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid angering the department, said a two-system approach was "a terrible solution" to the problems posed by a single system.

"What a disaster that would be," said the lobbyist. "You could easily see institutions doing well on one and badly on the other, and with Title IV [student-aid] eligibility attached, it would be utter chaos."

Ms. Muenzer acknowledged the drawbacks of the approach, including that colleges could perform poorly on the consumer system but use the "adjusted" outcomes data to sell themselves to prospective students.

"You could end up with an institution that goes from a 30-percent graduation rate to a 70-percent graduation rate," she said, by way of example. "That could be very difficult for consumers to understand."

"We can’t stop that institution from using 70 percent in its marketing materials," she added.

Even so, Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst at New America, formerly the New America Foundation, and another panelist at Monday’s event, said afterward that it would be a "massive mistake" not to create separate systems.

"The way consumers make choices and researchers and policy makers look at things is dramatically different," he said.

The department has promised a final version of its rating plan in time for the 2015-16 academic year. In December it released a draft "framework" of the plan that provided an update on metrics the department is considering using in its system.

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at kelly.field@chronicle.com. Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.