Education Department College Rating System Still Leaves Questions

The U.S. Department of Education is working on a project designed to help families select the best colleges by rating more than 7,000 institutions of higher education and setting standards that will determine how much federal aid schools will receive.

The Department is still working on the project’s details and hasn’t yet decided precisely how schools will be judged. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the ratings will take into account whether a college welcomes needy students, helps students graduate on time, and prepares them for high-paying jobs, according to Karen Weise of Bloomberg Business Week.

Currently the government has no way to measure how efficiently the $150 billion in college grants and loans is spent. With tuition rising and student loans surpassing $1.2 trillion, the administration will try to help answer questions about determining the value of college.

“The public does deserve, and should be asking, what’s the return on investment,” says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The pitfall—and this is particularly true in the president’s proposal—is that it’s very difficult, one might say impossible, to reduce college to a small set of numbers … that you can post funding to.”

Janet Napolitano, who resigned as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in July to lead the University of California system, in December told the Washington Post that she is “deeply skeptical” the Education Department can create a meaningful system. According to Napolitano, choosing a college is different than “buying a car or a boat.”

A poll by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed found only 13% of college presidents and administrators believe that Obama’s plan is a “good idea.”

According to the administration, decisions about what to measure will be made by the end of 2014. The administration has to sort out many questions, including whether college administrators will be less likely to admit disadvantaged students who need remedial classes if their federal funding depends partly on how quickly students graduate.

In addition, the administration must sort out whether schools that are rewarded for high alumni salaries will steer students away from becoming public servants with lower salaries.

“Believe me,” Duncan said at the college conference, “we are all aware that if this is not done well, a college rating system could create unintended consequences and allow gaming of the system.”

The administration is looking to some states that already link school funding to performance. President Obama has indicated Tennessee as a model, but the state’s decades-long experiment with school ratings shows how difficult it can be to get it right.

In the 1970s a young state researcher E. Grady Bogue spent five years to develop a set of standards to rate Tennessee’s colleges and universities.

Under his plan, most of a school’s state funding was based on the traditional measure of how many students it enrolled. Yet up to 5% of Tennessee’s higher ed budget rewarded performance based on measures such as student satisfaction and the number of accredited majors a college offered.