In the time-honored tradition of students’ slipping papers under professors’ doors before dashing home at winter break, the U.S. Department of Education released its first draft of the proposed college-ratings framework on the last day of the fall semester. Like many a late paper, the proposed ratings framework offers interesting insights into the student’s struggle to learn without much illumination of the actual problem the paper purports to solve.
The department’s hypothesis is that Americans are begging the federal government to engineer their college choices and guarantee excellent outcomes from those choices. The reality is that the range of variables influencing collegiate choice and outcomes is huge, and the federal government may be the least likely arbiter of consumer behavior and academic performance.
To their credit, the federal officials responsible for the ratings plan—notably, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell and Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley, both former college presidents—really did listen to the extensive comments they received after President Obama announced the administration’s intention to create the ratings system in 2013. The draft is sensitive to the concerns raised in that it does not offer actual ratings. But nearly 18 months later, the proposed framework remains muddled in purpose and unclear in its pragmatic application.
Purpose was one of the key questions that emerged during the comment period: Would the ratings system provide both consumer information and accountability? Rather than making the purpose crisper, the department’s draft reveals an even broader reach, stating that beyond providing information for consumers and accountability for performance, the ratings would “help” universities to “measure, benchmark and improve across shared principles of access, affordability and outcomes”; would help policy makers to “align incentives for colleges to serve students from all backgrounds”; and would “help inform policy, accreditation and funding decisions by states’ education authorities, policies and practices of accreditors and others.” Wow. While these goals seem too sweeping to achieve, they clearly establish the intended hegemony of the U.S. Department of Education over American higher education.
Beyond the overly broad purposes, the proposal reveals a retrograde way of thinking about higher education that does not reflect modern realities. Terminology about “four-year” and “two-year” institutions suggests that, despite all the talk about innovation and change, outmoded 20th-century ideas about seat time still dominate regulatory thought. The fundamental data sets are yardsticks carved in an age when a relatively small group of privileged young people went to college with the support of parents and graduated at the end of a four-year set of courses.
Today’s reality is remarkably different: If the department paid attention to its own data, it would know that nearly 75 percent of students today have nontraditional characteristics; that students progress through school in a variety of ways because of financial, familial, and other factors; that many undergraduates are self-supporting; that higher learning can and should occur in new formats and delivery systems that the current rules, data sets, and financial-aid programs do not recognize.
The proposed metrics would lock higher education into old ways of doing business at precisely the moment when innovation is urgent. Rather than crafting a fresh, bold image for higher education’s future, the plan is a snapshot of a closet full of old clothes that don’t fit very well.
Among the most egregious problems is the use of metrics derived from flawed data sets such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or Ipeds, a measure of graduation rates. While, fortunately, the proposal acknowledges the consideration of an Ipeds alternative, the fact remains that the department seems determined to move ahead even with inaccurate data that was never intended to be used for ratings. Statements about “exploring” other options throughout the metrics section strongly suggest that the Department of Education should finish exploring before acting.
The metrics listed show alarming disrespect for institutional mission and values. This disrespect is particularly clear in the metrics related to the income status of students.
While promoting more access for low-income students is worthy, the ratings plan would engage in not-so-subtle social engineering of the economic composition of student populations regardless of a college’s mission or expertise in serving particular students well. Using public shame as a threat to force wealthier institutions to accept more low-income students won’t move the access needle much. Ratings by Moody’s, which favors high net tuition over affordability and access, will still trump any federal ratings. But the federal plan has the potential for cruel outcomes for students who are pawns in the political process. Meanwhile, the ratings have the potential to do grave reputational harm to colleges that do serve large numbers of low-income students since those students progress through school in different patterns from the wealthier students for whom the fundamental metrics were designed.
The proposed ratings system is a lose-lose proposition. Rather than promoting access, informing consumer choice, and incentivizing improvement, the ratings as currently conceived will confuse consumers (if they pay any attention at all), harm good colleges that struggle with challenging students, and have little impact on elite institutions that have the economic power to keep doing what they’ve been doing rather well for centuries. The time and money spent on this endeavor would be better spent developing incentives for real change in academic delivery systems and financial-aid policies that could help more students finish degrees.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.