Education Dept. Tells Ratings Skeptics Their Concerns Are Valid

September 02, 2014

A key Education Department official said on Tuesday that she shared education researchers’ concerns about the potential unintended consequences of a federal college-ratings system.

Responding to several studies presented at a Congressional briefing she attended, the official, Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne S. Studley, said the researchers had raised "very appropriate" questions about the risk that college ratings could inadvertently harm minority students and the institutions that serve them.

"The conversations we are having [at the department] are eerily similar to the one I’ve heard this morning," she said. She also outlined her "own test of success" for the ratings: Will they recognize institutions that do a better-than-expected job of graduating low-income, first-generation, and minority students?

The proposed ratings system, due this fall, will judge colleges based on measures of access, affordability, and student outcomes, and could eventually allocate federal aid based on those ratings.

Officials in the Obama administration, including the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have repeatedly sought to reassure skeptics that the department is taking pains to craft a system that takes students’ demographics and academic preparation into account.

At the briefing, organized by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, Ms. Studley—who has helped lead efforts to craft the ratings—said officials were considering metrics that would weigh the different student bodies that institutions serve. Those factors could include students’ ZIP codes, the high schools they attended, and whether they have first-generation status.

She promised that the system would reward a "trajectory of improvement" and not simply punish poorly performing institutions. "Our objective is not to eliminate," she said. "It’s to improve." And she hinted that the administration might consider creating two separate ratings, with different metrics—one to create accountability and one to inform consumers.

But she urged the researchers to keep an open mind about federal ratings, asking them to "consider the positive side" of "reinforcing resources" at highly rated institutions.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, said the briefing, titled "Do Higher Ed Accountability Proposals Narrow Opportunity for Minority Students and Minority-Serving Institutions?," was not intended as "an attack on the Obama administration" but as a way to contribute to discussion over the ratings.

He urged lobbyists and Congressional aides in the audience to join that debate, warning of the perils of "enacting sound bites."

"This is a very high-stakes set of issues," he said, "that will determine the fate of institutions and students."