TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

The White House plans to rate your college — here’s what you need to know

BY Kyla Calvert  August 27, 2014 at 12:51 PM EDT
Illustrations by Ruth Tam

Illustrations by Ruth Tam

A year ago, the Obama administration released a plan to make college more affordable. One of the most controversial elements: develop a federal college rating system and then convince Congress to tie money for student aid directly to a school’s score.

rethinkingcollegeAccording to the plan, the ratings would be published sometime before the 2015-2016 school year. A first draft is scheduled for release this fall.

In the year since the White House announcement, college leaders across the country have questioned whether federal ratings will hurt schools, and students and lawmakers have introduced legislation to stop the system’s creation. Meanwhile, advocates have argued that the rankings will provide students with much-needed insight into which schools are worth the rising cost of tuition.

Here’s what students and families should watch for when the ratings proposal is released this fall.

Federal government spending on education_edited-1

There are already so many groups ranking colleges. Why add federal ratings to the list?

The federal government spends $150 billion each year in grants and loans to college students, yet “about zero percent of that is based upon outcomes,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said earlier this summer. “It’s based upon enrollment. Just having kids come to your school.”

The president’s ultimate goal for the new rating system, Duncan said, is not to tie aid exclusively to these ratings, but to tie some federal student aid to some of those outcomes. Outcomes could include graduation rates and whether students are on track to a degree. (More on this below.)

Many of the rankings by publications or by private companies focus on criteria that tend to favor elite institutions: things like students’ academic qualifications, a school’s selectivity and student-to-faculty ratios. The White House ratings are being framed as a tool that will highlight schools that are doing well with what they have. Are they admitting high numbers of low-income students and then graduating them at above-average rates, for example? Do students get jobs that allow them to pay off the debt they accrued in school?

How will the ratings be determined? What factors will be used?

Everyone is waiting to find out the specifics. But broadly, the ratings will take into account things like income levels; how much the average student pays and takes out in student loans; graduation rates, especially among disadvantaged students; how much graduates earn; and how many of them go on to to earn more advanced degrees.

And unlike most magazine-based college rankings, schools will not be listed one-by-one from best to worst. Instead, they’ll be grouped into broad categories like Excellent, Good, Fair or A, B, C, D.

I heard that a top education official compared the new system to evaluating a blender. Is that true?

Yes, The New York Times reported this spring that a Department of Education official compared rating colleges to rating blenders.

And that’s part of what has college and university leaders on edge.

In a letter to the Department of Education in January, a group of higher education associations laid out members’ reasons for opposing nationwide college ratings. Not only do ratings frame a college as a commodity rather than a public good, they said, one system cannot fairly account for a student body’s diversity, the content taught and where they’re located. Members also challenged the accuracy and scope of data available from which the government will draw.

They said schools could suffer for training students who go on to less lucrative, but important careers like teaching and social work or be pushed to take only well-prepared students who are most likely to graduate. Community college leaders in particular say their diverse missions, from providing job skills training to personal development classes, won’t fit easily into a neat rating system. They also worry they’ll suffer for their commitment to open access, even for those least prepared for college coursework.

What does this mean for my financial aid?

For now, not much. The Obama plan calls for unveiling a first draft of the rating system this fall and releasing the first official numbers before the 2015-16 school year. After that, the White House has proposed decreasing the amount of federal aid available to students enrolled at lower-rated schools by 2018. Plus, changing the rules for disbursing federal funds would have to be done by Congress. And we are coming to the end of what some argue has been the least productive Congress in history.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.