Federal plan to rate colleges fizzles

Amy Scott Jun 25, 2015
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Federal plan to rate colleges fizzles

Amy Scott Jun 25, 2015
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After a long wait and an earful from critics, the Obama Administration has scaled back its plans to rate colleges on measures like how much money students earn after they graduate, and how much debt those students take on. Instead, education officials plan to put out a website later this summer, and let consumers compare colleges on their own.

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief on college campuses.

“Today’s announcement gives us optimism,” says Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College. “We still want to see what it looks like, but we think the government’s going in the right direction and we’re encouraged by that.”

After putting colleges “on notice” in his State of the Union speech in 2012, President Obama has backed away from plans to punish colleges that fail to keep costs down for students. The original proposal was not only to rate colleges on value, but to cut off federal dollars to those that didn’t measure up.

“We think the ultimate accountability is a kind of public accountability that’s created by a marketplace of really good information,” says Ted Mitchell, U.S. Under Secretary of Education.

He wouldn’t say exactly what information the new consumer tool will provide. According to a “framework” proposed late last year, possible metrics include employment and earnings data, as well as graduation rates. A lot of information on costs and graduation rates is already out there, on the department’s College Navigator website and a newer tool called the College Scorecard.

Rachel Fishman, with the New America Foundation, has been studying how students make college decisions. In a recent survey she shared with Marketplace, just 16 percent of students said they’d ever used those websites.

“There’s no guarantee that the students that are most vulnerable in their decision-making and who don’t have enough good information to make that decision are actually going to find a website from the Department of Education useful,” Fishman says.

Mitchell said the Department plans to do outreach so students know about the new tool. It’ll also share its data, whatever that turns out to be, so that others can experiment with how to present it. The federal government isn’t exactly known for its user-friendly websites.

Without some sort of ratings attached, the value of the new site could be limited, says Kim Clark, who writes about education for Money Magazine, where she developed her own college value rankings.

“Most people don’t think about this stuff all day like I do, and they don’t know which numbers they should be looking at,” she says. “Without expert guidance, all of these extra numbers might just be more noise and more confusion.”

Then again, she says, there’s a whole college rankings industry out there that profits from giving that kind of guidance. With this new data, she says, those rankings might get better.

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