Obama’s College-Ratings Plan Arrives, but Most Specifics Stay Behind

Doug Mills-Pool, Getty Images

The Obama administration unveiled a framework for its long-awaited college-ratings system on Friday. President Obama, shown at the White House this week, announced his plan to rate colleges during a series of campus visits in August 2013.
December 19, 2014

The college-ratings plan that the Education Department is releasing on Friday can best be described as incremental.

The plan, the product of more than a year of discussion and debate, is less a proposal than a progress report—an update on metrics the department is considering using in its system. It’s unlikely to assuage colleges’ concerns, but it’s unlikely to increase their anxiety, either.

Which measures might factor into the ratings? The list includes a number of expected metrics, like a college’s average net price, its students’ completion rates, and the percentage of its students receiving Pell Grants. It also includes labor-market outcomes and loan-repayment rates—measures that proved controversial during the protracted fight over the "gainful employment" rule.

But there’s a lot that the "framework," as department officials are calling it, does not do. It doesn’t assign weights to each metric. Nor does it offer a plan for how similar institutions will be grouped.

It doesn’t say what format the ratings will take, and it doesn’t clarify whether the department will publish a single, composite rating, or a series of ratings.

Those gaps have left colleges "a little mystified," said Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which has opposed the ratings.

"There isn’t much new here, and there isn’t much that gives us a road map as to where they’re going to go," she said.

Steve Gunderson, president and chief executive of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, a group that has sparred with the department over the gainful-employment rule, said the delays show the impossibility of the department’s task.

"If after nearly a year and a half of work this is all the department can muster," he said, "it seems to support the long-held belief by many in higher education that while a college-rating system is admirable in theory, it is not feasible to create metrics that definitively assess the quality of so many institutions across the country."

Supporters of President Obama’s plan took a more optimistic view. "We’re making progress," said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network. "Obviously, this is a very complicated process."

In an interview Thursday evening, Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education and the department’s top higher-education official, argued that the Obama administration had "moved a very long way, both conceptually and technically."

Conceptually, "we’ve moved from a huge basketful of ideas down to what we think are a few understandable, clear, and really important domains in which we want to rate institutions," he said.

On the technical side, he said, the department has "done a lot of work with our own data systems," pitting possible metrics against each other, and "pressure-testing them to see if they hold water and have explanatory power."

Mr. Mitchell said the department was still on track to release the first ratings by the start of the 2015-16 academic year. The department is taking public comment on the framework through mid-February.

Doubts and Debates

Publication of the much-anticipated draft plan comes almost three years after Mr. Obama used his State of the Union address to put colleges "on notice," stating that his administration would not continue to subsidize rising tuition. He announced his plan to rate colleges the following year, during a three-campus "college cost" bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania.

Since then, the administration has proceeded cautiously, holding a series of public meetings and forums to solicit feedback from experts and advocates on how to construct the ratings. Mr. Mitchell estimated that the department had talked to 9,000 people about the plan.

The president’s goals are threefold: to help colleges improve, to help students make better decisions about which institutions to attend, and to allow policy makers and the public to hold institutions accountable for their outcomes. Ultimately, the administration wants Congress to tie some portion of federal student aid to the ratings.

But Republicans, who will control both chambers of Congress come January, aren’t likely to go along. They argue that the federal government has no business rating colleges, and they have threatened to cut off funding for the effort.

Colleges, meanwhile, worry the plan will punish institutions that serve low-income students and those that prepare graduates for much-needed but low-paying professions. A rating system that doesn’t adjust for student demographics and institutional mission, they say, could compel colleges to turn away at-risk students, relax their graduation standards, or drop degrees in low-paying fields.

Critics also complain that some of the information the Obama administration wants to use in its ratings is missing or incomplete. Federal graduation rates count only first-time, full-time students, for example, and data on graduates’ earnings are limited. According to those critics, rating institutions based on flawed data would be unfair to colleges and could mislead prospective students.

The new framework acknowledges those concerns, and describes ways the department might deal with them. It says the ratings will, "at a minimum," be divided into separate groupings for two- and four-year institutions. In addition, the department "is considering accounting for differences in institutional characteristics such as degree and program mix and selectivity."

The department is also debating whether to adjust the metrics to account for student demographics, an approach that public colleges have endorsed. The list of factors it might take into account includes students’ parental income, first-generation status, and SAT scores, Mr. Mitchell said.

Measuring Outcomes

On labor-market outcomes, Mr. Mitchell said, the department will not compare colleges based on whose graduates earn more. Rather, it will set a "threshold" that graduates’ earnings must meet—a multiplier of the minimum wage, perhaps, or earnings over the poverty line.

"We’re asking, Does attending Institution X prepare recent graduates for employment at a level that enables them to pay their bills and get on with life?" he said. "We think that eases a lot of the concerns about creating perverse incentives for colleges to produce more Wall Street lawyers and fewer social workers."

One test the department has already ruled out: a debt-to-earnings ratio, the metric at the heart of the controversial gainful-employment regulation.

As for critics’ doubts about the data, the department says it is exploring the feasibility of constructing a graduation rate using the agency’s central database for student aid. Such a rate would capture part-time and transfer students, though it would still be limited to federal student-aid recipients.

M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said the department should still allow colleges to substitute their own more-comprehensive graduation rates for the federal figure. Under the voluntary Student Achievement Measure, some public colleges are tracking outcomes for all their students, not just aid recipients.

Student and consumer groups, meanwhile, said they were glad the department had included labor-market outcomes and loan-repayment rates in the list of possible metrics.

"Students around the country tell us that one of the main reasons they go to college is to expand their career opportunities," said Jennifer Wang, policy director for Young Invincibles.

But others were troubled by the lack of detail in the department’s plan.

"This is a thoughtful paper that shows the result of extensive consultation, but it only serves to underscore concerns that the department lacks a clear framework, the data, and the time needed to do this well," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

"This project is driven by a timetable set by the president," he said. "I would be much more comfortable if it were driven by a desire to get it absolutely right."

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