More than a year after its initial announcement and after multiple delays, the Obama administration on Friday finally unveiled the first draft of its plan to rate the country’s 6,000-plus colleges and universities.
It could herald a major shift in how the federal government interacts with American colleges — if Republicans don’t halt it before it begins.
“In today’s world, college is not a luxury that only some Americans can afford to enjoy; it is an economic and social necessity for all Americans,” the Department of Education said in its announcement.
The rating plan reflects that sentiment, proposing a system that will focus almost exclusively on a college’s price and the job outcomes of its graduates, while ignoring its scholarly attributes.
Despite the long wait for its release, the proposed plan unveiled Friday is more of a rough draft, less ambitious and less detailed than what might have been. Rather than giving specific scores and rankings in the style of U.S. News, the government instead plans to slot colleges into a handful of broad quality categories that will merely identify the pretty good and the not-so-good.
In addition, the government hasn’t finalized what factors will be used to create its ratings, instead proposing an array of possible factors that are grouped into the three broad categories of access (how many poor and first-generation students are able to attend a school), affordability (a school’s actual price), and performance (how many students graduate and what their job outcomes are).
The proposed factors focus exclusively on utilitarian factors like post-college earnings, and ignore factors like faculty quality, class sizes, and campus amenities that play a major role in private ranking systems.
Not only are the rating factors up for grabs, but so are the groupings of colleges. School leaders have been pressuring the administration to avoid comparing radically different institutions, but beyond separating four-year and two-year schools it is unclear just how far different institutions will be divided up.
While still in utero, however, Obama’s overall vision can be seen. The president hopes to shift the public’s evaluation of colleges away from a heavy focus on the quality of facilities and professors, and toward a greater focus on price and practical career outcomes. In doing so, he hopes to arrest tuition costs that for decades have been rising substantially faster than inflation.
Before releasing its final version, which the White House hopes to have operational in time for the 2015 school year, the government is soliciting input from educators, policy experts and other stakeholders in American education.
“Our students deserve to know, before they enroll, that the schools they’ve chosen will deliver [real] value,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement. “With the guidance of thousands of wise voices, we can develop a useful ratings system that will help more Americans realize the dream of a degree that unleashes their potential and opens doors to a better life.”
Even the half-formed plan announced Friday has been in the works for some time. Obama first announced his ratings proposal in August 2013, and before had hinted in his 2012 and 2013 State of the Union addresses that he wanted to increase pressure on colleges to control costs.
By waiting so long to implement the system, however, Obama may have wasted his opportunity. Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and even before Friday several GOP members were agitating to undercut the proposal.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who will soon take over the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has already said he will sponsor legislation to cut off funding for the ratings, and similar legislation is also planned in the House.
Republicans argue that an administration effort to rate colleges reflects an arrogant disregard for private decision-making, and they also say that comparing thousands of radically-different schools is a logistical nightmare that can’t hope to be accomplished without big invasions of student privacy.
Even if their attempts to defund the ratings fail, Republican control of Congress means that Obama will almost certainly be unable to bolster his rating plan by changes to federal law. Ultimately, the president hopes to adjust federal student loan policies in order to reward well-rated schools and punish poorly-rated ones, but such a change would likely require Congressional action, and if Republicans remain opposed to the entire endeavor that action is quite unlikely.
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