The Department of Education released a draft framework for a new college ratings system on Dec. 19. The initiative is part of the Obama Administration’s goal for the United States “to once again lead the world in college attainment, as we did a generation ago.”

Purposes of the Rating System

The Administration’s expectation is that the rating system would expand higher education opportunities by recognizing institutions that “excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds, focus on maintaining affordability, and succeed at helping all students graduate.” Thus, the system aims to:

  • Give institutions a means for measuring and improving performance in these areas;
  • Provide families and prospective students improved information about the value of a college education as well as better information to help them in selecting a college; and
  • Provide appropriate authorities information that would be useful in making accreditation, policy and funding decision and for holding institutions of higher education accountable.

Institutional Applicability

In its initial rollout of the ratings, the Department intends to include predominantly four-year institutions (i.e. colleges that primarily award baccalaureate degrees and above) and predominantly two-year institutions (i.e. degree-granting colleges that primarily award associate degrees and/or certificates). The initial version will not include graduate-degree-only and non-degree-granting institutions.

Methodology

The Department states it will use broad categories to highlight successes and weaknesses. Thus, it is described as a ratings system and will not be a numerical ranking system. At this time it is contemplating three rating levels: high, middle and low. To address institutional differences, the Department intends to compare institutions with similar missions. Thus, in addition to the four-year versus two-year distinction, it is considering taking into account such other characteristics as degree and program mix and selectivity. However, it also is doing various data analyses to decide whether any additional groupings would be useful. The Department recognizes that acknowledging improvement is important and so will explore how the system can be used to support progress toward the measures it ultimately determines to be key.

Data to Be Used

The Department’s initial version of the rating system will draw principally from various existing data collection systems and all student data will be provided only in aggregate form. Currently, among the metrics being considered are the following:

Accessibility:

  •  Percentage of students receiving Pell
  •  Expected family contribution (EFC) Gap
  •  Family Income Quintiles
  •  First-Generation College Status

Affordability:

  •  Average Net Price
  •  Net Price by Quintile

Success:

  • Completion Rates
  • Transfer Rates (i.e from a two-year to a four-year institution)
  • Labor Market Success, such as Short-term “Substantial Employment” Rates and Long-term Median Earnings
  • Graduate School Attendance
  • Loan Performance Outcomes

Next Steps

The Department is seeking comments from institutions and the public regarding how it can best provide information that addresses the themes of accessibility, affordability and outcomes. It intends to have this rating system in place for the 2015-16 academic year, but wishes to do some consumer testing before then. Therefore, any comments must be submitted by Feb. 17, 2015. They can be provided either by email to collegefeedback@ed.gov  or by using the Department’s online form.

detailed statement of the Department’s proposal and an invitation to comment upon are also available on the website.

What This Means to You

It is clear that the Department will implement some kind of rating system, and it will likely be finalized to apply to the next academic year. It is important for institutions to understand the scope of that system and how it could potentially affect its operations, including, but not limited to, recruiting, financial aid, programming, student support services, and placement.

Senior administrators should consider providing comments to this proposal either individually or in association with other like institutions, in an effort to help shape its final form to be one that is as advantageous and administratively efficient as possible.