Despite concerns expressed by members of the higher education community over the past year, the Department of Education (ED) continues to advocate for the proposed federal college ratings plan. If done correctly, the ratings will provide better consumer information to students and families and more accountability for institutions and state partners, said ED Undersecretary Jamie Studley at an event Thursday evening.
“It seems worthwhile for us to say as a nation, ‘this is what we care about,’ and we want to be sure people have the information to do that,” Studley told attendees at a lecture event hosted by the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
Studley emphasized that the intent of the ratings system is to bring higher education more in line with the national goals of increasing access, affordability, and positive outcomes from institutions that serve low-income students. The ratings system will aim to achieve this in two ways, she said: increasing the quality and range of consumer information available on higher education, and influencing partners in higher education, such as states and institutions.
The event also included a discussion about the role that existing ratings systems—such as those published by U.S. News and World Report and Washington Monthly—can play in student choice and institutional behavior.
In his remarks, Cornell University Professor Ron Ehrenberg said that while only a small percentage of students and families use such rankings to influence their decisions, the rankings can “lead to all sorts of perverse behavior by institutions.” He cited previous research that has shown schools that improve in the rankings also engage in practices like being more selective in their admissions, turning down students who are unlikely to enroll, and adjusting the amount of institutional financial aid they spend on students.
But an even bigger issue, Ehrenberg said, is that the currently available rankings systems do not take into account student behaviors and social diversity indicators, which need to be considered when looking at consumer information needs.
Sandy Baum, a professor at GW and a fellow at the Urban Institute, expressed concern that the proposed federal ratings system will be come the ratings system—instead of supplementing or adding to what is already out there.
“I think it’s important for us to take a step back and ask why we are doing this,” Baum said, noting her concern that the consumers who would most benefit from the information proposed in the ratings system would not use it.
“It’s not enough just to have the information out there—and most of the information the Department is talking about is already out there,” Baum said, adding that students and families need “very personalized” guidance when making decisions about higher education, which is often lacking in rankings or rating systems.
However, the conversations that have surrounded the proposed ratings system have been good for higher education and may lead to better data collection and consumer information for students, she said. “We need a better way to address these issues and help low-income students.”
Publication Date: 1/9/2015