College Ratings System Puts Students First

December 19, 2014

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Deciding if, and then where, to go to college is one of the most important decisions a person will ever make. Pursing education beyond high school is a major fork in the road that can determine a person’s economic future, career path, social circles, civic involvement, and health. It is not a decision to be made lightly, but for many, it is one made without much information. In August of 2013, President Obama proposed creating a college ratings system to address this very issue. Released today, the first draft of the ratings system takes an important step forward in providing students with this vital information, but also brings to the light the need for comprehensive data to evaluate the behemoth that is the U.S. higher education system. This morning I had the opportunity to speak with Deputy Under Secretary Jamie Studley to learn more.

Pursing education beyond high school is vital in today’s economy, but many students do not realize that where they attend college can have a crucial impact on whether or not they complete a degree. The U.S. Department of Education proposed ratings system ( lays out a framework for guiding students through this important decision making process, though it is not yet complete. The framework keeps with the President’s initially proposed categories of access, affordability, and outcomes, which are the three areas students should consider. Data are missing or imperfect for several of the metrics within each of these categories – most notably Pell Grant recipient graduation rates, transfer student outcomes, and earnings data. However, it is crucial to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The ratings system must be an impetus for better data, rather than incomplete data a roadblock for helping students. One possible solution for this missing data is to allow institutions to submit data voluntary, which Deputy Undersecretary Jamie Studley in her conversations with NCAN staff said that the Department is considering. 

The ratings framework also includes several important measures that can be measured right now. These include the percentage of students receiving a Pell Grant, the quintile breakdown of family income, net price by income quintile, and complete rates. Examining how many students receive a Pell Grant and the socio-economic breakdown of the student body are important indicators to students about the inclusiveness of a college or university. The net price by income quintile further shows whether an institution is likely to be affordable for a low income student. And completion rates show whether a student is likely to succeed at a specific school. For completion rates, however, including transfer students and a measure of success for low-income students is crucial in helping student to answer the question, “will a student like me succeed here?”

The framework proposes that measures will be presented as “high-performing, low-performing, and those falling in the middle.” Studley told NCAN that the goal is not to break institutions into thirds, but rather to review the spectrum of institutions for each metric to examine the natural breaking points in the data. Likely the “high-performing” and “low-performing” institutions would both be small bands with the majority of institutions falling “into the middle.” However, the Department has not yet decided whether or not the metrics for each category will be combined in some way to an overall score or grade. NCAN has advocated from the beginning for an approach similar to Consumer Reports that will allow students to ultimately decide which categories are most important to this decision. Recognizing high-performers and low-performers by category is one helpful way to present this information to students so that they can weight which elements matter more to them. 

Overall, the initial approach from the Department of Education focuses on helping students to make the crucial decision of where to attend college. Most students will make this decision once, or maybe twice, in their lifetimes. If the market mechanisms of “voting with their feet” are to work in higher education, students must be well-informed about the institutions to which they are applying to reduce transfers and increase completion. The federal government is in the best position to gather this data together, from any and all sources possible, to help them make this decision. The consumer focus of this proposal is the right one, with the longer term accountability metrics to come second. NCAN and our membership look forward to continuing this important conversation about how to group the high- and low-performers in each of these metrics, and, most important, how to bring this information to the public with a student-facing platform. 

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