The federal government Friday morning released what it's calling a "framework" to rate America's colleges on their performance in three areas: how many low-income and disadvantaged students they educate; how affordable they are; and how well their graduates do financially, in the job market, and in graduate school.
The U.S. Department of Education said it planned to issue the ratings "in time for the 2015 school year" -- so, presumably, by August of 2015.
But researchers familiar with the government's plans say that ambitious and idealistic plan will be stymied by an ugly reality: much of the information needed to rate the colleges on these factors doesn't exist yet.
While describing the government's plan as "thoughtful," Terry Hartle, a spokesman for the nation's largest association of colleges, the American Council on Education, said "It is not clear how they will get it done." The problem, he and other researchers said, is that there is currently no easy way to mine the government's data on citizens to find out, for example, which graduates of which colleges go on to graduate schools, how much graduates of each college earn, or how much alumni of each college are paying on their student loans.
In August of 2013, President Obama pledged to create ratings based on which colleges are "offering the best value so students" and giving taxpayers "a bigger bang for their buck." He said he hoped the government would provide more financial aid to students at colleges that do the best job providing opportunities, educating students, and helping launch good careers.
In its announcement Friday, the Education Department asked for public comments on its plans to judge colleges by the following factors:
Access: The Education Department said it was thinking of judging colleges' provision of opportunities to all by examining, for example, factors such as the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, which are grants awarded only to low-income students, and the percentage of students whose parents did not attend college. It was also considering looking at the family incomes of students at each college, and giving higher ratings to colleges with more students from the lowest income groups.
Affordability: The government is considering giving poor ratings to schools that provide so little financial aid that families end up having to pay much more than the "Expected Family Contribution" (EFC) after they fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Financial aid is generally in such short supply that 99% of colleges fail to provide enough grants or scholarships so that every student has to pay only their EFC. But currently, colleges are not required to reveal how many students they leave with financial aid "gaps" or how large those gaps are. Additionally, the ratings may ding colleges with high "net prices," which is the price students (and their parents) pay after all grants are subtracted. The government said it may look at either the overall average net prices, or the average net prices paid by families divided into five income groups, such as those earning up to $30,000, or those earning more than $100,000.
Outcomes: While graduation rates are a commonly used metric for judging colleges, the Education Department proposes adding other gauges such as how many new graduates find jobs quickly, and how much money they earn over the long term. In theory, the Internal Revenue Services or the Social Security Administration might be able to provide the employment and earnings information for graduates of each school, but privacy concerns have stymied efforts to gather that data in the past. The Department says it may also consider what percentage of graduates are paying their loans off, and what percent go on to graduate school. For community colleges, the Department said it may consider what percentage of students transfer to four-year colleges.
To help families gauge the affordability and value of colleges, Money hired Mark Schneider, a former head of the federal National Center for Education Statistics, to develop college rankings based on quality, affordability, and outcomes, using the best data currently available, including, for example, a national survey of college graduates' earnings by Payscale.com. Our rankings of the 665 top colleges in the country were released in the summer of 2014.