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Education Department Backs Away From College Rating System

Instead, the Obama Administration will roll out a college comparison data tool

Rather than create a college rating system as it had originally proposed, the U.S. Department of Education now plans to release a data tool for prospective students and their families to compare colleges this summer.

The federal rating system, a version of a system proposed by President Barack Obama two years ago and further detailed in a draft report late last year, would have involved rating colleges based on factors including graduation rates, post-college debt and earnings, and average net price. After the draft prompted some pushback, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Education Department was considering revising its proposal into a two-part system.

The Department of Education detailed plans last week for a different system of evaluating colleges, a data tool it says will offer students and families a way to compare college costs and outcomes without an explicit government ranking or rating. Unlike the previously proposed federal rating system, consumers, rather than the government, will formally evaluate schools under the tool.

A post on the Education Department’s blog detailing the new system billed it as a “college ratings tool” that will “take a more consumer-driven approach than some have expected, providing information to help students to reach their own conclusions about a college’s value.” Officials will also release open data to researchers and other institutions to “help others benchmark institutional performance.”

The Obama Administration has already released a college grading tool in the form of its “College Scorecard.” Housed on the White House website, the searchable tool contains information about colleges including graduation rate, average net price, and loan default rate.

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Many leaders in higher education, including Harvard President Drew G. Faust, have raised concerns about the concept of a federal college ranking or rating system since government officials began discussing it.

Interview with President Faust
University President Drew G. Faust in 2014.

“One of the general and widespread responses in higher education to [the rankings system] proposal has focused on what are we trying to measure and how [we] understand what a good education is,” Faust said in 2013. “And some of the kinds of criteria that have been identified are quite troubling to many of us.”

According to Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, the tool that officials are now discussing may better capture the nuances of assessing colleges.

“What we won’t be getting is an obvious U.S. News and World Report replacement system,” Lake said, referring to the publication’s annual college rankings. “The department now realizes that any system of evaluation of higher [education] is more multifaceted than they may have originally conceived.”

Lake predicted that once the tool is unveiled, Harvard will do its best to “win” under the new system. “You can bet that someone will be looking at each and every data point, trying to figure out how to improve that,” he said.

But for now, Lake said, it is difficult to predict the proposed tool’s effects. Describing the tool as in a “wait-and-see mode,” Lake said, “The administration right now hasn’t really committed to something entirely clear, so it’s hard to be clear about what the outcome will be.”

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalincunningham@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

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