Professor Obama Grades U.S. Colleges, Finds It Tests Him

Grading U.S. colleges is harder than it seems.

The Education Department, charged by President Barack Obama to create a system rating more than 5,000 campuses on graduation rates, student debt and other outcomes, is finding that calibrating the metrics is complicated. The agency has delayed unveiling a draft until the fall, months later than planned.

Obama wants families to see which campuses offer the best value amid rising tuition, which has climbed eightfold at state schools in 30 years, while making colleges accountable for the federal student-aid dollars they receive. The department is grappling with scores of variables, said Tom Weko, who worked on the plan before leaving the agency in March. One example: schools with many graduates taking lower-paying jobs such as teaching would fare differently on an earnings measure, he said.

“The difficulty of accounting for outcomes is compounded by the very limited data resources available,” said Weko, managing researcher for post-secondary education at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research in Washington. “So many of them cannot be measured or measured well.”

The Education Department has held at least 80 meetings with more than 4,000 participants in the year since Obama ordered up the scorecard on institutions ranging from community colleges to research universities. The response from private colleges has been almost uniform: they hate the idea. Some public schools that regularly report outcomes to state governments are more comfortable with it.

Affordability, Value

The ratings are scheduled to be in place before the academic year beginning in 2015. A second step -- tying financial aid allocations based on the ratings by 2018 -- would come later when Obama seeks legislation through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the principal federal law governing colleges and universities.

“Colleges should be rated on how well they help students succeed, and part of that is helping students get a good education in the field of their choice without graduating with a mountain of debt,” said James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “The new rating system would focus colleges on affordability and value to help students and their families pick a college that will put them in the best position when they graduate.”

The system won’t rank schools, as do publications including U.S. News & World Report, which use criteria such as admission rates, entrance exam scores and faculty-to-student ratios.

“U.S. News measures primarily wealth, rejection and reputation,” said Jamie Studley, the Education Department’s deputy undersecretary who is overseeing the tool. “The Department is looking at access, affordability and outcomes.”

‘Meaningful Credential’

Outcomes, while difficult to measure, account for 30 percent of U.S. News rankings and are the most heavily weighted metrics, said Brian Kelly, U.S. News’s editor and chief content officer.

“We welcome the President’s proposal for a new rating system and hope the Department of Education is able to make data on graduate career prospects and better, more accurate data on debt loads available,” Kelly said.

At the heart of the project is the goal of influencing schools to do better on these measures and graduate students with a “meaningful credential,” said Studley, a former president of Skidmore College who was also an associate dean at Yale Law School. In a blog post in May, she said the “complexity of the task” led the agency to take more time before it publishes the draft plan.

“Our hope is to harness competition to drive improvement on these critically important measures.”

Graduation Rate

She cited California State University at Dominguez Hills, which has sought to boost its six-year graduation rate of 28 percent. More than two-thirds of its 15,000 students receive federal Pell grants, which are reserved for the most needy.

The school, near Los Angeles, identified 40 to 50 students who began in 2008 and were one or two classes short of completing their degrees, said Provost Ellen Junn.

In a one-time offer, the campus waived fees of about $900 for each of those final classes offered during the summer. With some students completing courses and others determining they had met requirements by recalculating their credits, the graduation rate climbed to 30 percent, she said. If nine more students pass courses later this month, the rate could rise to 31 percent, she said.

“We’ve heard many times over how important it is to schools that they not be penalized for taking high-risk students,” Studley said.

Being Fair

While graduation rates are seen by many as a fair metric of outcome, salaries aren’t necessarily.

“Job information is so much harder to figure out,” said Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, who has reservations about the planned rating system. “The first job may not be a very good indication. You want information about labor markets over time.”

Weko, the former department official, said the agency, working with the Domestic Policy Council, National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisors, is well aware of such concerns. It’s looking for solutions that won’t penalize schools with high proportions of students who, for example, go into the Peace Corps or graduate school, he said. The same goes for womens’ colleges, where a high rate of students enter lower-paying fields such as teaching and social work, or don’t participate in the full-time workforce years after college as they raise children.

“This is a new outcome measure,” Weko said. Those working on the plan want to “intelligently use earnings information to describe the quality of educational institutions,” he said.

Better Data

The system isn’t being designed to help students see fine distinctions between the most selective schools, Weko said.

“It will put institutions into categories,” he said. “Every classification has a bottom category and that will give people information that should, at a minimum, cause them to stop and think before they make a decision and perhaps consider an alternative.”

The system has more support among public universities.

Students and families should have better data to allow them to make meaningful comparisons, said David Hopkins, president of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He said current measures focus more on selectivity and a college’s wealth.

“Why are we perpetuating metrics that aren’t relevant to the needs of the 21st century?” Hopkins said.

A better way for schools to be more accountable is to make them pay a portion of any loan defaults by their former students, said Charles Wight, president of Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He agrees with the idea of making more information accessible through a ratings system.

“I’m not opposed to it,” he said. “I don’t think it goes far enough.”

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