For the past 16 months, the Obama administration’s plan to rate colleges has been one of the most talked-about issues in higher education. On Friday morning the Education Department’s draft plan arrived with a whimper, as news outlets and observers quickly remarked that the so-called framework was less a rough draft than a bare-bones outline of what an eventual system might feature.
It is worth noting right off the bat that many observers now believe, if they didn’t before the draft was released, that the ratings system is a pipe dream. “The question is, will we actually see ratings for the 2015-16 school year,” Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told Politico on Friday morning. “I’d be surprised … to be honest.” Mr. Kelchen, who has followed the ratings plan so closely that he accurately predicted in September the exact day the draft plan would be released, wrote on his blog that the possibility the system will be tied to student aid by 2018, as President Obama has proposed, is “basically nil.”
Two facts stand in the plan’s way: The Obama administration does not have a lot of time left in office, and the plan is broadly rejected by the Republicans who will control both chambers of Congress come January. Also, the administration, despite its bold talk, has a checkered history on accountability, as The Chronicle’s Kelly Field noted in November. So, aside from the chance that the Education Department will surprise skeptics and succeeds in rolling out the plan, why do we care?
Analyzing the system’s proposed structure, and what the department chose to name as possible metrics to base it on, can be educational. And observers were quick to jump into the metrics—and to cast doubt on them. Politico’s Allie Grasgreen noted that half of the proposed metrics are incalculable right now. One metric in particular, the “expected family contribution gap,” is so vague that no one (outside the department, perhaps) seems to know exactly what it is.
Feeling bad for all the IR departments across the country that are now being told to calculate incalculable ratings for their schools
— Ben Miller (@EduBenM) December 19, 2014
At least some of the metrics are likely to be included in the final version. There are two other relative certainties: that four-year and two-year institutions will be rated separately (an uncontroversial idea), and that institutions will be separated into three categories. The very best institutions will belong in an exclusive top category, the worst will go in a small basement category, and the vast majority of colleges will be thrust into a large middle category.
Some observers applauded the three-tiers idea, as opposed to an A-to-F grading system. Vox’s Libby Nelson tweeted that such classifications seem “less likely to invite gaming the system,” which has been a concern of the system’s critics ever since President Obama announced the plan last year. The department’s under secretary of education, Ted Mitchell, told The New York Times that the idea behind the tiers was to avoid the “false precision that we believe plagues lots of ratings” (read: U.S. News & World Report).
Amid the vast uncertainty, prominent higher-education associations were quick to register their disapproval. Leaders of the American Council on Education, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities all issued statements either bashing the department’s effort or poking holes in it.
Meanwhile, unqualified support for the draft version seemed scarce.
The silence of #PIRS supporters is absolutely deafening.
— Carlo Salerno (@EDAnalyst) December 19, 2014