Earlier this summer, President Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to create a federal ratings system for colleges fizzled in the face of pressure from the higher education industry, who decried it as misinformed federal overreach. Today the president announced a retooled version of that vision: a "college scorecard" built from a massive online trove of previously-unreleased data, showing graduation rates, post-college earnings, student debt levels, and how likely former students are to be able to repay their loans.
Wary of criticism, the government has shied away from explicitly ranking the schools itself. But the scorecard, government officials made clear in a call with reporters, is an attempt to reshape how Americans measure the value of colleges.
It's a big change from how the country’s best-known college rating system currently works. Today’s White House announcement comes just days after U.S. News & World Report released its much-anticipated annual college rankings, considered by many to be a key metric of a college’s worth. At the top of the list were Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, thanks largely to their low acceptance rates, heavy spending on academic programs, and prestige.
In his weekly address Saturday, the president made an allusion to US News and its ilk, saying, "The status quo serves some colleges and the companies that rank them just fine. But it doesn't serve our students well – and that doesn't serve any of us well. There are colleges dedicated to helping students of all backgrounds learn without saddling them with debt. We should hold everybody to that standard."
“The current system is one where we reward colleges based on what they spend, for turning away students instead of enrolling more of them,” said James Kvaal, the White House’s deputy director of domestic policy. “These are the wrong incentives to be giving our colleges, and the wrong message to send our students.”
On a press call, Kvaal highlighted the schools that the White House’s metrics found to be “exceptional”: colleges that have made inroads in affordability, that graduate high numbers of poor and first-generation students, and that dramatically increase their graduates’ earning power. Rather than the usual suspects, those schools included Northern Virginia Community College, Bismarck State, and the University of California at Irvine.
“This measures the right things, rather than introducing distractors into the equation,” said Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary of education.
In addition to scorecards that detail each college's information, the White House released a database that the administration hopes will be used by journalists and researchers.
Eleven organizations will soon launch services that pull data from the scorecard, which education officials believe will propel a market for new college search tools. Among the government's partners are I’m First, a nonprofit serving first generation college students; ScholarMatch, a scholarship program that supports students of low income; and PayScale, a widely used salary database that has created its own salary-based "return on investment" ranking, drawn from survey data.
And while the administration doesn't want to do the ranking themselves, anyone using the scorecard or combing through the public data is free to do so. “There’s a huge diversity in the products,” Erie Meyer, a founding member of the White House's U.S. Digital Service, told BuzzFeed News.
PayScale, which will update with information from the scorecard, plans to release a new 2015 assessment of colleges’ return-on-investment. “Other tools like ScholarMatch literally do put a ranking on schools," Meyer said. "It’s a 4-point scale just like grades in school.”
Formed after the troublesome launch of the Healthcare.gov website, the US Digital Service functions as the government’s in-house digital fix-it team, pulling in elite engineers from Silicon Valley to attack computing problems of national importance within federal agencies. "When people from the private sector get a chance to do this kind of service," Meyer said, "they have a hard time going back where their job might be to make ads a couple of pennies more effective."
For Meyer, the scorecard is one example of turning a technical challenge into a massive opportunity for social impact: lifting Americans into the middle class through better education choices.
Some of the information released today has never previously been available to the public. It is the “first reliable nationwide data” on students’ earnings after college, said Kvaal, drawn from federal loan data and IRS filings, rather than self-reported surveys. The database also provides an unprecedented look at whether students are actually able to make payments on their loans.
Much of it, however, is already readily available, though scattered in different places on colleges’ websites and in federal databases.
U.S. News & World Report might prioritize selectivity, awarding points to schools that accept the lowest percentage of their applicants, and reputation, or how peer institutions judge another university’s “academic excellence.” But the Obama administration’s new scorecard puts average cost, graduation rate, and salary after attending as its top metrics.
The scorecard also details colleges’ financial aid, listing “typical” debt and average monthly payments, as well as how many of the school’s students are actually able to pay down their debt.
Lisa Gelobter, Chief Digital Officer at the Department of Education, emphasized that the open database enables students and parents to filter through criteria that matter to them.
“It’s not on the Department of Education to say this is the right school or that is the right school, because each person should be able to decide that for themselves," Gelobter told BuzzFeed News. "And that’s why we built the product exactly that way."
When he first conceived of the system in 2013, Obama presented it as a revolutionary plan to rate and evaluate schools based on what their graduates earned and how many poor students they enrolled — and even suggested tying the ratings system to schools’ federal aid, and awarding financial bonuses to schools that did well.
But colleges of all stripes — for-profit, non-profit, state schools and private schools — immediately bristled at the proposal, saying the federal government’s data was inadequate and that the White House had little experience in higher education. They argued, too, that comparing vastly different types of schools, as Obama’s system proposed to do, was meaningless.
“The reaction was that the government was taking on an impossibly difficult task,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “Even the Department of Education warned at the time that the White House lacked the data and expertise to do this, and the White House elected to go ahead anyway.”
Ultimately, in June of 2015, the White House, too, concluded they had bitten off more than they could chew, announcing it had scrapped plans for a ratings system of its own.
“We acknowledge the limitations of the data,” said Mitchell. “Critically, it's because of those limitations that we made the decision to not make clear direct ratings. We felt that the data was not supportive of drawing those kinds of conclusions.”
The hope, Mitchell said, is that the “the data itself can drive decision making.”
But Hartle worries that the data itself could be misleading. Information on earnings, for example, includes only students who received federal aid — potentially providing an incomplete picture. And there is no breakdown of earnings by area of study, which often vary wildly within an institution.
“You’ve got 6500 different institutions that are all trying to different things, and this desire to reduce it to an easily summarized set of metrics — that’s a pretty hard task to do in a way that’s accurate, fair and meaningful, and doesn’t ignore the many different educational goals that different institutions have,” Hartle said.
Ben Miller, the senior director of higher education at the Center for American Progress, said the database is likely to prove important for reporters and researchers. But it may have less impact as a consumer tool, used by parents and students.
“It’s really hard to reach students directly,” Miller said. “The worry is less about appearance and functionality, and more about, how this is going to get into peoples’ hands.”
This is where, the department hopes, the open database and network of partners will make the difference.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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