On Feb. 17, the period for public comment on the US Department of Education’s first draft of a long-anticipated federal college ratings system closed. The proposed framework used access, affordability, and student outcomes as metrics to help students and families navigate the daunting college application process. This draft, dubbed the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System, comes in response to tuition hikes and snowballing student debt. It’s certainly merited: student debt has climbed past $1.3 trillion, and young adults now postpone buying homes and starting families to manage their debt obligations. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had it right when he asserted that “students deserve to know, before they enroll, that the schools they’ve chosen will deliver” value to match their financial sacrifice.
The submitted comments came from college presidents, education policy makers, and other stakeholders. Some argued the rating system must measure diverse kinds of student outcomes more comprehensively, and it’s certainly true that income level can’t be the only measure of a successful college education. Others claimed that the proposal would increase tuition rates, or that institutions should provide students and families with relevant information on their own. A consistent refrain is that the draft lacks specific understanding of different schools it proposes to group together. It’s evident that the draft framework is not ready to be rolled out for the 2015-2016 school year.
At the same time, it’s clear a mechanism to help applicants compare their options could offer significant benefits. A graduating high school senior headed for college must decide on a school and a financial aid package, both of which can shape life decisions for decades to come. Many graduates dealing with debt after committing to a particular program have never anticipated damaged credit ratings, long-delayed home ownership, and monthly payments that stymie savings, investments, and starting businesses. It’s increasingly clear that the opportunity costs of college decisions weigh heavily on the economy.
Part of the guiding concept behind the federal rating system is to ensure students and families who have to make these big decisions are as prepared and informed as possible. The suggested framework shows enormous potential to temper the allure of shiny new facilities and big names with the simple facts of affordability and career outcomes. While some universities might feel untoward pressure to change their educational priorities to measure up to the federal standards, the fact is that many of today’s most competitive schools are already gaming existing systems to rise in privately compiled rankings.
Factors such as applicants’ GPA and SAT scores — cross-referenced with class sizes and graduation rates — are consciously and vigorously honed by schools hoping for a better placement. A federal ratings system that encouraged top-tier institutions to cultivate affordable tuition rates and diverse student bodies with that same persistent energy could offer significant and positive changes. Though the draft may well require some revision to account for the wide variety of schools and students it intends to serve, the vision promises a much-needed assessment of the far-reaching impact of college applicants’ decisions.