The college ratings debate is on according to the Forbes’ article, Rating President Obama’s College Ratings yesterday. College financial aid officers, public laymen, and elected officials are beginning to voice their positions about ratings criteria and how to best measure the higher education advantage, benefit, effectiveness, productiveness, success and value.
In essence, it’s about the federal government creating a new system to measure and compare a college’s educational strength and value potency that will lead to successful college completion, good jobs and lower student debt.
The Department of Education (ED) will hold “public hearings around the country to gather the input of students and parents, state leaders, college presidents, and others with ideas on how to publish excellent ratings that put a fundamental premium on measuring value and ensure that access for those with economic or other disadvantages are encouraged, not discouraged,” according to the White House Fact Sheet.
Once developed, parents and students will be able to look up a college or university and find its rating under a new federal college ratings system. This will be a new way to compare the potency of various educational public and private institutions of higher learning and to encourage colleges to improve.
New federal college ratings system
Last August, President Barack Obama announced his plan to create a new federal ratings system based on value. The goal is to increase college competition and help students manage their college costs.
The President proposed other ideas but they require congressional authorization and funding. The administration can implement the new ratings system without Congress and the ED has been directed to make it so as part of the existing College Scorecard before the start of the 2015 school year.
By 2018, after three years of refinement, the President hopes the ratings system will be tied to federal financial aid. That’s when the next step requiring congressional support, “giving larger Pell grants and cheaper loans to students at high-performing institutions,” begins according to Forbes.
Over 150 billion of federal dollars plus billions more in state and college funds are at stake and college costs continue to rise so parents and students can expect a heated debate.
The federal government awards billions of dollars annually in free money grants and must pay back educational loans. Colleges depend on using federal monies as well as their own institutional funds when creating financial aid awards to make it attractive and affordable for students to attend.
Rankings like those from U.S. News and World Report can make or break a college’s reputation, influence alumni and other donators, affect partnering with businesses in research and other projects, and encourage students to apply, and if offered admission, attend.
If the ratings are used as rankings, money may be distributed differently. Politicians, colleges, businesses, students and their families have a vital interest in the debate outcome.
A huge focus of the debate will be the criteria to be measured under the new ratings system.
The White House Fact Sheet states:
The ratings will be based upon such measures as:
▪ Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
▪ Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and
▪ Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.
Forbes points out the flaws in some criteria. Institutional aid besides Pell Grants may be
critical in providing “Access” for low-income students. “Affordability” should be about
actual cost of attendance also including “family income and the cost of living in the
college location.” As for “Outcomes,” data currently exists only for first-time, full-
time students, not upperclassmen or part-time and transfer students.
Forbes wants to add student/faculty ratio stats and lose graduate earnings stats. It also
wants to include subjective components such as surveys of alumni satisfaction.
“Real Numbers, Real Goals,” an article Forbes mentions from Inside Higher Ed points out, “There are around 7,000 colleges in this country. Some are fantastic world leaders. Others are unmitigated disasters … But the vast majority fall somewhere in between.” The article recommends focusing on the extremes not the middle average.
Inside Higher Ed article also suggests measuring based on performance relative to peers, using factors a college can control, and allowing for extra credit for socioeconomic diversity or first-generation students.
The best/worst case scenario
The new ratings system can help make college more affordable, have no effect or make
the situation worse.
Although parents and students are concerned with value, good value alone is not enough if the college does not lead to successful completion of a degree.
Certain stats sound meaningful but are less so in practice. For example, overall student/faculty ratio combines general and advanced classes. In reality, very large classes may exist for prerequisites and popular courses but quite small seminars may be the rule for upperclassmen in their majors.
There is no one learning model that suits all. Colleges come in many sizes and locations. Some students prefer small seminars and close interaction with other students and the professor, others the anonymity of large classes and the ability to decide when to receive attention and help from both professors and teaching assistants.
A good ratings system will prioritize what is most important for students.
Student and parent solution
Many Americans were disgusted by the recent government shutdown and felt powerless to end the crisis.
Here are five ways parents and students can participate and keep the debate on track:
1. Attend a public hearing and contribute opinions about how to measure college
2. Consider the source of other voices including college representatives, elected
officials, independent college experts, and laymen. Learn who benefits most from their
suggestions by following the money to find out.
3. Urge the federal government to simplify and consolidate its websites’ material so it
can highlight an effective rating system that serves the education consumer.
4. Vote for candidates who support higher education and meaningful rating metrics.
5. Become a savvy education consumer and show interest in schools that make college
more affordable for its students in general and for you in particular. Apply to schools that offer great educational value and accept admission from the one that will give the best educational value for the buck and greatest chance of future success.
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