Last week, President Obama unveiled a set of proposals that aim to bend the higher education cost curve toward affordability. Among his ideas is one that, not surprisingly, we think has a lot of merit: rate colleges and universities.
The Teacher Prep Review scrutinizes quite different aspects of higher ed than the administration will in its revamped College Scorecard. But we think our effort has enough in common with what the President is proposing that we can humbly offer him some friendly advice based on our own experience:
Be mindful of the "Matthew Effect:" Some kinds of ratings magnify the advantages of prestigious institutions, helping the rich get richer and making the poor poorer. Take the notion of rating colleges on the earnings of their graduates. Since taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for student loan default, we of course ought to know whether graduates generally make enough to pay the loans back. But we shouldn't unduly reward Harvard for the high earnings its graduates make, since many of them enter with big advantages in educational attainment and connections over the average college student.
It's this sort of thinking that lies behind the construction of our Selection Criteria Standard. Programs get four stars for imposing a 3.0 GPA admissions requirement, but don't get extra credit for setting the bar at 3.25. Selectivity is important, but we don't want to encourage programs to focus on it single-mindedly to improve their ratings.
Stand fast on transparency: As the New America Foundation points out, the higher ed lobby has been extremely skillful in blocking legislative efforts to get the data needed to hold them accountable. In teacher preparation, for example, programs have found ways to game federal reporting requirements about licensure pass rates. Many programs make passing licensing tests a requirement for completion, leading to reported licensure pass rates that regularly exceed 97%. Neither the public at large nor aspiring teachers know which programs are most effective in getting candidates ready for certification.
The administration should publicly call out these sorts of games for what they are. Institutions that benefit from $150 billion in federal student aid each year have an obligation to share data with the public about their performance.
Don't believe the "it can't work" crowd: Just because the prospect of Congressional action to tie student aid to the administration's ratings is remote doesn't mean that the ratings themselves won't spur improvement.
Consumers of higher ed actually do make choices based on information they find most useful. Institutions know this, which explains why many already change their behavior to improve how they are ranked in U.S. News & World Report. If the administration can establish strong standards that provide information that consumers want, its ratings will also impact where students end up going and what institutions end up doing.
Note: this post has been corrected. Originally, it stated that programs are required to report licensure pass rates of "program completers," which is not the case.