More Details on How the Education Department May Rate Colleges

The U.S. Department of Education has started a yearlong effort to figure out how to rate the more than 7,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. As I reported in the recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, the effort is forcing the government to ask what an education is worth. The ratings will be available publicly for students and families to use as they search for colleges as early as 2015, but the department has bigger ambitions for the ratings and hopes Congress will eventually tie them to the more than $150 billion in student loans and grants the department gives out each year.

The effort to tie higher-ed funding to performance is unprecedented at the federal level, but has been attempted by dozens of states, including Tennessee, which pioneered the approach. I spoke with Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley, a former president of Skidmore College who’s helping lead the effort, and she provided more insight than we could fit in the magazine. Here are a few more details:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has assured worried colleges that the ratings will “make apples-to-apples comparison of like institutions” so community colleges won’t be compared to elite universities, for example. (That’s a hallmark of Tennessee’s plan, too.) Studley says there should also be a way for students considering more than one type of college to make comparisons. “The ways schools think about their peers and outcomes may not be the same as the way students think about where to study,” she said. One student, for instance, may consider attending a for-profit institution, a community college, and a four-year state school if the programs, location, and other features seem appealing. “We want to be true to the institutions, but we also need to be as helpful as we can for the students,” she said.

Studley and others in the department have been on a “listening tour” around the country to solicit ideas and have heard about interesting ratings models to consider, both inside higher ed and from other industries. They’re reviewing how Washington Monthly‘s college rankings account for how schools encourage students to pursue community service, and “we’ve heard about a way that electronic games are evaluated from a student in Baton Rouge that we think is worth looking at,” she said. Department officials have also looked at Consumer Reports and likes how Cook’s Illustrated lays out “the key characteristics of blenders and canned tomatoes,” summarizing the results as “highly recommended,” “recommended,” “recommended with reservations,” and “not recommended.” Said Studley, “That’s the kind of level of information that we talk about when we talk about it informally.”

The education department published a formal request for ideas and suggestions in the Federal Register on Dec. 17, and expects to create a draft proposal in the spring. It plans to finalize the ratings by the end of 2014 so the metrics can be used for students applying for the 2015-16 school year. The schedule is ambitious, and depending on the feedback, the department may find a way to phase in the ratings over time, Studley said. What that would look like isn’t yet clear. “There are a lot of different ways,” she said, “that we can begin a journey.”

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