Want to Bring Together Congressional and College Leaders? Propose a College Rating System | Commentary

Posted August 22, 2014 at 3:43pm

It was a just a year ago that a hurricane hit higher education. It was formed in the Office of the President and named “College Rating System.” It is on a path that means heavy rains in fall 2014 and even heavier rain and gale force winds in 2015. The aftermath will continue into 2018, when the results of the rating system are tied to federal student aid. Why create such a system? What data are to be used? How will it work?

The rating system is intended improve access to higher education, to make college more affordable and to measure student outcomes or return on investment. Colleges and universities will be judged by what percentage of students receive Pell grants (access); the price of tuition and how much loan debt students accumulate (affordability); as well as graduation rates, successful transfer, earnings and completion of advanced degrees (outcomes). Each institution will be rated annually using data available to the Department of Education. We do not yet know what the data are nor how the various ratings will be described.

The system is a bold move. It forces additional transparency on colleges and universities. It drives comparisons among colleges and universities as a daily fact of life. It is a step toward some type of national framework for judging higher education performance. It has the potential to compel greater uniformity among colleges and universities, with the federal government deciding what is best for students.

As with most bold moves, the system has both supporters and detractors. Supporters value the effort to control the price of higher education and the emphasis on student outcomes. They see the focus on access as an important means to further diversify higher education and strengthen its role in combating inequality. They believe that the additional attention to student success, employment and earnings is long overdue.

The detractors include, surprisingly, both congressional and college leaders, both Democrats and Republicans. As rare as it has become for Congress and academics to agree on much of anything related to more public accountability for higher education, the rating system has made this so. This is even before Congress has taken up the issue of whether to tie ratings to federal student aid by 2018.

Among Democrats, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has expressed interest in having indicators by which to judge higher education performance, but has questioned whether a single rating can be effective for this purpose, noting colleges that may be weak in a number of areas but have some strong programs will nonetheless sustain a weak rating.

Among Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, ranking member of the HELP Committee, has called the rating system a popularity contest. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education, has questioned the capacity of the federal government to rate colleges and know what is best for millions of students. And, in June 2014, Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte from Virginia and Democratic Rep. Michael E. Capuano from Massachusetts joined together to introduce a resolution (H.Res 614) opposing the college rating system.

When college leaders agree with what members of Congress are saying, it is in part because the ratings look a lot like the rankings that are found in US News and World Report that higher education has loved to hate for 30 years. While educators agree that access and affordability are vital issues for students and society, there is widespread skepticism that a rating system can effectively judge an institution’s performance in these areas, much less serve as means to improve performance, given the complexity involved. And, many have questioned whether federal data on which the system would rely are adequate to the task.

Administrators and faculty are also asking how such a system can take into account the enormous diversity of U.S. higher education and the students it serves. They ask how all institutions from open admission colleges to highly selective institutions, public or private, associate degrees to doctoral degrees, a few hundred to a hundred thousand students, with remedial education to post-doctorate research, can be effectively judged in this way.

Will this bold move be successful? Will we have a hurricane at full force in 2015? Or will the convergence of concern — Congress and colleges, Republicans and Democrats — mean that the hurricane turns out to be a weak tropical storm?

Dr. Judith Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.