College Ratings: Red Flags/Gold Stars Out, Consumer Tools In

June 25, 2015

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Today, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will release a suite of consumer facing tools by the end of the summer, but that it will not include an accountability focused ratings systems as originally proposed. From the beginning (August 2013), the ratings system was meant to support dual purposes of consumer information for students and institutional accountability. NCAN has been a proponent of these ratings as a method to put more, and better, data into the hands of our members and their students as they pursue the best fit college. While the Department has moved away from the accountability piece, meaning this is no longer a “ratings” system, Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley stressed to NCAN staff that the yet-to-be-named tools will be student focused and will include information never before released to the public.

As part of the announcement, Ms. Studley posted to the Department blog, Homeroom, that as they did research for the ratings system and met with students, parents, teachers, and more, it became clear that “[s]tudents of all backgrounds, but especially lower-income students and those who counsel them, are eager for additional information that will help them make smart choices among their college options, and they would welcome the federal government lending its credibility and resources to this effort.” This type of information will be included in the new consumer tools and is a direct result of the continued effort by NCAN members to advocate on behalf of our students.

The suite of tools will be a dynamic resource and not a static list of information, according to Ms. Studley. It will be “do-it-yourself in the best way possible,” meaning that students can prioritize which characteristics and data points are important to them and use those priorities to examine institutions. NCAN advocated for a system that would allow students to set their own priorities beyond grassy quad or urban setting to factors such as low-income student success or student supports offered. Additionally, the building of this suite of tools is also an opportunity for the Department of Education to review all of the tools already available to build a more cohesive approach.

One question yet to be answered is which data elements will be used to build the consumer tools. In December, the Department of Education released a framework that  outlines possible measures for the ratings system. Department of Education staff confirmed to NCAN that that document is still the guideline for what will be used in the consumer tools.

Finally, the Department remains committed to making the data used to build the consumer tools available to researchers and those serving students. This is great news for NCAN and our partners who are looking systemically at how colleges serve our student population. This release, available through an API, will allow researchers to use their data for their analysis and will allow website and app developers to use the Department data for their tools. These tools, in turn, can develop their own ratings or red flag/gold star approach that NCAN advocated  for in the originally proposed ratings system.

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