AAC&U Presidents Debate College Ratings

President Obama has made it clear that a higher education rating system is on the near horizon. Members of his administration have been engaged in listening sessions across the country for months, hearing from students, families, faculty, and administrators. At the national meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in Washington, DC, Deputy Undersecretary of Education Jamienne Studley today briefed a large group of college presidents and association leaders. Her remarks, clear and to the point, were that a rating systems is coming and that the administration is listening closely to feedback. She also made it clear that issues of access, quality, affordability, and student debt make the development and implementation of a ratings system a presidential priority.

The presidents and association leaders who spoke tended to raise similar questions and concerns. They focused mainly on the dangers of equating salary outcomes with ratings, noting the potential unintended consequences could be very unfortunate. There were also references to the dangers of reduction, the strength of the many missions of higher education institutions across the country, and the overall agreement that we all can do better. Some of the comments were thoughtful and others reflected a deeper conservatism and reluctance to grant a greater role to the federal government in higher education. Considering the extent that the federal student loan program makes higher education possible, I have little patience for philosophical and policy independence from the government.

Ratings exist for all manner of products and services. The federal government already rates such things as automobile safety, nursing homes, and appliance energy efficiency. Private ratings are all over the place. There is nothing inherently wrong with ratings. They can be helpful and when making a major decision, we often turn to ratings.  It will happen so let’s make it effective. The early indications are that the ratings will be in large “buckets” so that small distinctions between institutions will not be possible. Administration officials have also emphasized that ratings should look at like institutions with like populations and missions.

A tremendous amount of information is already available online through IPEDS. It can and should be made easier to navigate, particularly for the potential students and their families who we would consider unsophisticated consumers of higher education. The IPEDS data will be at the core of the new ratings system.

Ratings alone will not effect a major shift in behavior or a market. Ratings have to be linked to other actions in order to effect change. There has been some discussion about this but it is all fuzzy. And we are all still in the dark about the Obama administration’s goals, which have been about helping students and their families. Is it there an expectation that ratings will make higher education more affordable? Will speed the closure of underperforming institutions? Improve graduation rates? Informed students may make better decisions, but then again, many higher education decisions are by definition about feelings and aspirations.

For the ratings and attendant policy decisions to meaningfully improve higher education, the Obama administration should be more direct about its goals for higher education. Is graduation still at the top?  Cost? Or something different? Everyone would benefit from a clear statement of priorities. With so many of higher education’s shortcomings laid at the door of a ratings system, widespread disappointment is the likely result.

David Potash

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