Learning Curve

Concept for federal college-ratings system is unveiled

Amy Scott Dec 19, 2014
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Learning Curve

Concept for federal college-ratings system is unveiled

Amy Scott Dec 19, 2014
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COPY

The Obama Administration unveiled what it’s calling a draft “framework” for its long-awaited college ratings system. Colleges have been bracing for details for more than a year now for what could amount to a sort of Consumer Reports for higher education.

The goal is to rate colleges on things like how affordable they are, how well they serve low-income students and how their graduates fare in the job market.

“I think this is a supremely challenging task,” says Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

Part of the challenge, Broad says, is that the department doesn’t have all the data it needs to judge how colleges are really doing. Official graduation rates, for example, don’t count students who switch colleges or go part-time, though the Department is working on a new measure to include those students.

The numbers also don’t take students’ intentions into account, says Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York. Not all students want to finish “on time.”

“Some are intentionally on the six-year plan,” Zimpher says. “They want three majors, they want study abroad, they really want internships and co-op experiences, and it’s hard to push that into four years.”

That’s why today we have a framework, not a plan. Officials are asking for feedback by mid-February on which data to use and how to fairly compare some 4,000 colleges with different missions and different students.

Ted Mitchell, U.S. Undersecretary of Education, says, “We’re not going to be perfect in version 1.0, but we do hope that we’ll be able to build on it in successive years.” 

That means working out the kinks by 2018, when schools that are rated “low-performing” could face financial penalties.

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