Why the Obama administration should drop its college rating plan

Arne Duncan and President Obama (By Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)
Education Secretary Duncan and President Obama (By Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)

The Obama administration is developing a system to rate colleges and universities by 2015 that will be based on a yet-to-be-determined set of criteria that could include data points such as average tuition and how much graduates earn. Part of the system involves getting congressional approval (which isn’t likely) to direct more federal student aid toward schools that score highly in the ratings. Let’s look at all the reasons this is a bad idea.

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system who had been President Obama’s U.S. homeland security secretary, said last December that she is “deeply skeptical that there are criteria that can be developed that are in the end meaningful.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan has defended the idea, saying that “helping young people and families have more information and make better choices” and goals that he thinks “would be embraced universally.”

Duncan is right; such goals would be universally embraced, but a federal rating system of colleges and universities isn’t likely to help, given that rating systems present a limited view of any institution that is part of a rating or ranking, and that the government already publishes a great deal of information on institutions of higher education.

The Education Department asked for public comments about its plan, and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling responded with some of the most interesting. In its comments (which you can read below), it made a number of points, including:

*Ratings and rankings can be skewed by the methodology used to create them.

* The federal government has major constraints in its ability to oversee data submission from colleges and “as a result, it may take years before institutions are held accountable for violating program integrity standards, including reporting false data to the Department of Education.”

At a minimum, a college ratings system in the current environment of program integrity enforcement would suffer from inaccurate and potentially misleading information if unscrupulous institutions are able to avoid accountability for reporting inaccurate information. At worst, decisions about the allocation of federal student aid will be made on information that has been manipulated to ensure continued eligibility for federal student aid programs, with little or significantly-delayed corrective action.

* A rating system could create incentives for schools “to focus disproportionate resources on data elements that can change rankings without necessarily changing the quality of the institution.

* It is “virtually impossible to develop a ratings system that includes affordability as an input variable without also making an evaluation of the state funding mechanisms for higher education.”

* The administration suggested that  colleges and universities would be classified in its ratings system by “mission” as well as institutional type, but schools “differ widely within some of these categories.”

* Using as a data point the number of students from low-income families with Pell grants is problematic because “some institutions that enroll the largest number of Pell grants are also the institutions with the worst track record for serving students.”

Here is the full letter sent by the association to the National Center for Education Statistics on the rating system:

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 9