Blog: The Educated Reporter

Obama’s College Proposal: The Shape of Ratings to Come

EWA held its annual Higher Education Seminar recently at Boston’s Northeastern University. We invited some of the education journalists in attendance to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Mary Beth Marklein of USA Today. For more content from the seminar, including stories, podcasts, video, check out EdMedia Commons.

The subtitle for the EWA session on Obama’s higher education proposal asked, “Will Performance Ratings Hurt Student Access?”

The short answer: Who knows?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said his department plans to begin public hearings for input on what factors the department should consider as it prepares to rate colleges on access, affordability and outcomes. So without details on what data and methodology would be used to produce the ratings, the discussion at EWA’s seminar held last month at Northeastern University focused less on whether colleges might try to game the system but on whether it’s possible to design a rating protocol that manages to avoid any number of unintended consequences and where such data might come from. Most of the focus was on outcomes measures. (Here is a link to Obama’s proposals.)

Essentially, Obama sets two key deadlines. By 2015, he wants to have in place a “new ratings system” to help students compare colleges and to encourage colleges to improve their performance. By 2018, he wants federal student aid allocated based on their ratings performance. Students attending high-performing colleges, for example, could get larger Pell Grants. That change would require an act of Congress.

If that change were to happen (and it’s a big if), Matthew Reed, vice president of academic affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, outlined a few potential scenarios depending on how the outcomes are measured. For example, an emphasis on completion rates would give South Dakota community colleges an edge over Massachusetts community colleges, he said, because South Dakota community colleges are more likely to enroll honor-roll students, who have fewer college options than do high-achieving students in Massachusetts. If jobs and salaries matter most, technical schools in Massachusetts would likely fare better than Holyoke because the tech-school mission is directly tied to jobs and salaries. Additionally if salaries of graduates are the emphasis, his school might be inclined to drop its music department and beef up its engineering program, where the earnings are stronger.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, suggested that the federal Education Department is going to have its hands full. “Developing rating systems is hard,” he said. “And if you are going to have serious consequences attached to a public policy like financial aid, you have an obligation to have appropriate data.” He and others identified several potential hurdles if the federal government looks to create a federal unit record database, to tap into state databases or to look at data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Zakiya Smith, a former White House senior adviser who now is strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, had her reservations, too. She agreed that existing data are insufficient. In terms of a policy linking federal aid to the ratings, the most she could muster up was that it was an “interesting” proposal. Still, she didn’t see why a lot of “smart people who have an understanding of the issues” couldn’t figure out how to work around challenges. That’s what the public hearings are designed to do, she noted. Twice, she described herself as cautiously optimistic.

As an aside, the Obama administration has said it wants to develop a ratings system, not a ranking. In his speech announcing the plan, he took a swipe at the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, which he said encourages colleges to game the numbers and “actually rewards them, in some cases, for raising costs.” Hartle said a rating system “can be turned into a ranking system fairly easily. If the administration doesn’t do it, it’s quite possible for other people to develop a ranking system” from whatever ratings the education department produces.

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