Mixed Decisions on College Accountability

As Robert Kelchen points out today at College Guide, the Department of Education is for the time being giving up on its plan to rank colleges for purposes either of determining institutional eligibility for federally provided student financial assistance, or even to inform consumers. Kelchen suggests it was just a matter of too much to do and too much opposition:

This week’s announcement that the Department of Education is dropping the ratings portion of PIRS [Post-Secondary Institution Rating System] (is it PIS now?) comes as little surprise to higher education policy insiders—particularly in the face of bipartisan legislation in Congress that sought to block the development of ratings and fierce opposition from much of the higher education community. I have to chuckle at Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell’s comments on the changes; he told The Chronicle of Higher Education that dropping ratings “is the exact opposite of a collapse” and “a sprint forward.” But politically, this is a good time for ED to focus on consumer information after its recent court victory against the for-profit sector that allows the gainful employment accountability system to go into effect next week.

It does appear that the PIRS effort will not be in vain, as ED has promised that additional data on colleges’ performance will be made available on consumer-friendly websites. Although I am skeptical that federal websites like the College Scorecard and College Navigator directly reach students and their families, I am a believer in the power of information to help students make at least decent decisions, but I think this information will be more effective when packaged by private organizations such as guidance counselors and college access organizations.

Kelchen’s reference to the administration’s recent court victory is definitely worth noting. Earlier this week a federal judge threw out a major court challenge brought by for-profit colleges against the proposed “gainful employment rule” that would make eligibility for student loans contingent on institutions showing their graduates actually earning enough to repay their loans. This is a huge victory for accountability.

As for rankings, Kelchen’s right: the key thing is federal progress towards making relevant information available to consumers and analysts. WaMo is willing to continue to play its role by using all available information to do the rankings.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.