AAC&U Responds to President Obama's Proposed College Ratings System

Monday, November 11, 2013

In August 2013, President Obama announced that he was charging the US Department of Education to develop a new college ratings system to complement the existing College Scorecard.

Subsequently, the Department of Education has invited commentary on the details of this proposal. In response, the Executive Committee of the AAC&U Board of Directors has outlined key concerns and recommendations.

While we applaud the broad goals President Obama articulated in announcing the initiative, including making "college affordable for American families" and providing to students and their parents "information to select schools that provide the best value," AAC&U, as the national organization most directly engaged with the quality of students' learning in college, believes that many aspects of the proposed approach will be counterproductive.

According to Department of Education statements, the new rating system may include such factors as average tuition, percentage of Pell grant recipients, institutional graduation and transfer rates, loan and default rates, and graduate earnings and percentage of graduates pursuing advanced degrees. Eventually, the department wishes to link its metrics-based ratings directly to eligibility for federal aid.

Many organizations are rightly questioning whether the rating system will lead institutions to deny access to students who could eventually benefit from college but may take longer to complete their educations. We share that concern. But we also believe that other basic problems with the proposed approach have been less widely discussed. Accordingly, we outline below three additional concerns and recommendations:

  • The data being proposed for inclusion in the proposed rating system do not address—and should not be described as—metrics for the "value and worth of college." We ask that the administration not describe its work as a rating system for college "value" and "worth."

A college degree demonstrably increases the likelihood of gaining employment, but the true "value" of college is ultimately about learning and the difference a good education makes in many aspects of our graduates' lives—in their long-term success in a changing economy, in their civic participation, and in their personal development and individual flourishing. The "value" of our colleges, universities, and community colleges also encompasses their impact on the vitality and integrity of our democracy, on research and the advancement of knowledge, on community partnerships, and on global and economic development and innovation.

Nothing addressing any of these "value" benefits from the nation's investment in higher education has been proposed for inclusion in the ratings system, and we are not recommending that metrics in these areas be included in such a ratings system. The federal government is not well-positioned to report on these value dimensions of higher education and student learning, much less to use them in a rating system potentially tied to federal aid.

We urge the administration, therefore, to stop describing this proposal as a rating of the value and worth of college. Equating the terms "value" and "worth" with the proposed data points is seriously misleading to students, to the public, and to policy leaders themselves.

While some of the data suggested for inclusion might provide useful consumer information to help students and their parents in their planning for financing their educations, none of the data speaks to the educational or societal value of college degrees.

Especially when it comes to first-generation students, we need to clarify the difference between economic planning for college and the educational goals students should pursue once enrolled in college. Completion matters. Cost matters. Economic outcomes matter. But what ultimately matters for students is the quality of their learning, value that is returned across the entire lifespan and that contributes in myriad ways to families, democracy, and communities near and far.

  • If the Department of Education creates and publishes ratings based on the data proposed so far, the result should be described as Selected Indicators on College Cost and Completion. The Selected Indicators should be accompanied by notes on the limitations of the data.

A potentially useful system could be developed to provide green flag/red flag indicators with warning signs about institutions with particularly poor graduation and/or transfer rates, especially for those qualified to receive Pell grants or federally subsidized student loans. Such a system could also provide additional commendations for institutions with particularly good records of serving Pell grant recipients, including improving their graduation rates and reducing their loan default rates.

Even this far more focused approach will be challenging to implement, given currently available data systems. Yet it could eventually be useful in helping college-goers avoid institutions that depend mainly on federal dollars while doing little to support students' progress.

  • The proposed ratings system should not include salary information.

Reporting the salaries of a particular institution's graduates as institutional averages or medians is a misleading "indicator" with high potential for perverse effects.

Rating institutions based on average graduate salaries will reward institutions with multiple engineering and technical programs and punish those that produce large numbers of teachers and public service workers. Yet, the last thing our nation needs is to discourage students from majoring in fields that help support a healthy community (e.g. early childhood education, community organizing, social work), or to pull students away from schools and fields that have a public service orientation. Public service fields are less well paid, but they are vital to the integrity of our democracy. Publishing data on salaries will punish institutions without engineering programs and reward institutions with many graduates heading to Wall Street rather than Main Street after graduation. Sorting institutions by mission, as the administration has proposed, will not redress this fundamental problem.

Some have proposed publishing institutional salaries by field. However, providing data in a federal ratings system on salaries by academic field rather than by institution opens up a host of other complicated problems, especially for a system that may be tied to federal aid. Right now, the available evidence on salaries following graduation is spotty, imperfect, and would make for a hopelessly complicated institutional rating system. Moreover, the data salary patterns for different fields of study vary dramatically depending on whether one looks at the first year out, five to ten years out, or twenty years out. Which point on the continuum would the ratings creators consider definitive?

The fact is that salaries for different careers are what really matters to students, and salary information—with appropriate caveats about imperfect data— should indeed be part of every institution's financial aid counseling and advising plan.

Advising, however, must inform students of the fact that employers in many organizations and fields actually place less weight on the field of study than on students' possession of a full portfolio of broad or liberal learning outcomes, including not only competence in a relevant field, but also high-level skills and hands-on experience. If we tell students that only the choice of major really matters, we're denying them critical information on the learning they most need for career opportunity and success over time.

Using salary data in the proposed ratings system, in short, is bound to be misleading to students and, because of its complexity, a distraction from more basic questions of whether students are successfully completing college, transferring to other institutions, and managing the net costs of their enrollment.

In closing, an AAC&U Board of Directors statement on the proposed rating system released in August declared that "the United States needs a far more searching exploration of 'value' than the administration has proposed."

The current focus on the proposed ratings system is diverting both time and resources from that much-needed and far more searching exploration.

The quality of learning is our nation's most important resource, both for democracy and for the economy. Educators and employers both have been warning for many years that too many graduates are only partly prepared for life beyond college. But the needed engagement with the quality of student accomplishment in postsecondary study now is being delayed to everyone's detriment.