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Draft College Rating System Emphasizes Accessibility, Post-College Success

The U.S. Department of Education released on Friday a draft plan for a new college rating system that would evaluate institutions of higher education based on a multi-faceted framework, including schools’ accessibility to low-income students and how their students fare in the job market after graduation.

The system would also judge colleges and universities on a number of expected criteria, such as graduation rates, average net price, student loan debt, post-college earnings, and the percentage of students who receive Pell grants, according to the draft report.

The product of a Department of Education effort to assess colleges’ success at “expanding access, maintaining affordability, and ensuring strong student outcomes,” the system is intended to categorize institutions as high-, middle-, or low-performing, but it will not rank colleges numerically. It is also meant to help students evaluate schools in the college search process and improve the federal government’s distribution of federal student aid.

The released framework provoked criticism Friday from some higher education experts, who argued that the criteria would not evaluate institutions effectively.

University President Drew G. Faust, for her part, has been discussing the framework with Department of Education officials for the past two years. Faust was not available for comment immediately following the release of the draft report Friday, but in an interview Tuesday, prior to the report’s release, she questioned the worth of evaluating success in the job market. Specifically, she argued that a framework based on post-graduation earnings could discount contributions made by students who enter the public service or other low-paying sectors.

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Interview with President Faust

“I think we need to argue with any notion of college that says it’s simply about putting people in jobs,” Faust said. “Certainly that’s a significant part of what we intend with the way we educate you.… We also want a sense of creativity and adaptability that will ready people for a job that we don’t even know about yet.”

Peter F. Lake '81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, said the draft report is unspecific and abstract “as opposed to a hard regulatory structure,” but added that Harvard would likely fare well under the proposed rating system.

“I have a feeling that [Harvard will] come out reasonably well under any kind of rating system that anybody could come out with,” Lake said.

Lake noted, however, the proposed rating system’s emphasis on the matriculation of low-income students might translate into a higher access rating for other colleges compared to Harvard.

“Certain schools that happen to [feed from] historically disadvantaged populations may come out a little stronger [on access] than places like Harvard, which gives the impression that they're making the [accessibility] effort that Harvard is not, which is really not the case,” Lake said.

While Harvard’s financial aid program allows students with household incomes less than $65,000 to attend the College almost for free, the student body is disproportionately wealthy compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Just 13 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s survey of the Class of 2018 reported an annual family income of less than $40,000, while 14 percent of freshman respondents reported annual family incomes above $500,000.

The Department of Education plans to refine its proposed rating system after an open comment period, which ends Feb. 17, 2015.

—Staff writers Matthew Q. Clarida, Amna H. Hashmi, and Samuel E. Liu contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at mariel.klein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.

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