ED Publishes College Rating Ideas

by Rachel Zinn
December 19, 2014

A framework for rating colleges based on critical metrics, including employment outcomes, was released today by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The document explains how ED is approaching a college ratings system and invites comments on the plan, which is scheduled to produce ratings in time for the 2015-16 school year.

The proposed system intends to drive improvement in postsecondary institutions, and help students and families select a college. It would put schools into three rating levels: high-performing, low-performing and in the middle. Schools may be rated on multiple metrics that measure access, affordability and outcomes.

A few interesting details from the framework:

Only degree-granting institutions included. The ratings will apply to four-year and two-year schools that award degrees and certificates, but not to schools that only offer certificates. ED cites data limitations on non-degree granting schools, and notes that the Gainful Employment regulations require many certificate programs to provide information that helps students “avoid low-performing programs.”

Labor market success. ED wants to have some measure of how well students are prepared for jobs, but does not want a metric that encourages schools to steer students away from lower-paying but important professions, like teaching and social work. Metrics under consideration include a short-term measure of the percent of former students earning a family-sustaining wage (e.g. 200 percent of the poverty line) and a long-term average earnings measure. The framework recognizes that states have done good work on publicizing college programs’ employment outcomes, but points out that many only capture graduates working within the state. 

Outcome adjustment. The framework raises the possibility of adjusting outcomes (i.e. completion and labor market metrics) based on the characteristics of students and institutions, so that schools are not discouraged from serving students with challenges. The U.S. Department of Labor adjusts outcomes this way for its job training programs.

Missing data. ED notes some important areas the framework cannot address due to missing data, including labor market outcomes by program (rather than institution) and attainment of licenses and certifications.

Making data accessible. ED is thinking about ways to make some of the data behind the ratings accessible to the public, including researchers and entrepreneurs, so they can develop innovative tools that aid in college selection.

The Obama Administration announced its intention to establish college ratings last year. In response to ED’s earlier request for information, WDQC submitted comments about reporting employment outcomes.

Comments on the framework are due by February 17 and can submitted by email to collegefeedback@ed.gov.

Read additional analysis here from our partner New America.