Obama Ratings Would Divide Colleges into High and Low Performing

The Obama administration is considering putting four-year undergraduate and graduate institutions and two-year institutions into such categories as high performing, low performing, and those in the middle based on measures including completion rates and job placement.

As unsurprising as it was long awaited, the broad outline of the Obama ratings plan is now available for public comment through February, and officials say that it will be in place next fall.

“It is a daunting task to develop a fair and meaningful approach” for all 7,500 U.S. postsecondary institutions. -Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

The department says it is after a ratings system “that is clear, fair, and focused on a few key critical measures of institutional performance” while “accounting for the diversity and complexity” of the higher-education system.

Though they say they’re all for openness, university and college associations, which get about $150 billion a year in federal financial aid, have generally argued that’s not possible.

“It is a daunting task to develop a fair and meaningful approach” for all 7,500 U.S. postsecondary institutions, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says, for instance.

Among the challenges, the associations cite the broad diversity of students and institutions, the time-consuming and potentially expensive complexity of providing the appropriate information, the fast-changing makeup of the typical student, and the risk that universities will reject promising students out of fear of harming their completion rates, or lower standards to make it easier to graduate.

Other categories proposed by the department include the proportion of an institution’s enrollment that is low income, based on the percentage of students who receive federal Pell grants, and students’ expected family contribution. Both could affect colleges and universities that have been raising their net prices—the amount they charge after discounts and financial aid are taken into account—much faster for poor students than wealthier ones.

The ratings would also report the net price, by income; the proportion of students whose parents did not themselves go to college; transfer rates, which should help ease the fears of some institutions—particularly community colleges—that students who transfer are not included in their graduation rates; graduate school attendance; and loan default rates.

Here is Hechinger coverage of issues relating to the ratings:

Can universities be embarrassed into raising graduation rates?

Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite

College-rating proposal shines spotlight on powerful lobby

Poorer families are bearing the brunt of college price hikes, data show

So how are college graduates really doing? A few schools are willing to tell us

Universities look for new ways to rank themselves

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.