Feds Hint at Possible College Ratings System for Consumers

March 24, 2015
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By Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

The development of a college ratings system added a new twist yesterday. In an announcement on March 16, an official suggested that the U.S. Department of Education is considering developing two college ratings systems instead of one.

The dual ratings system that the Department of Education is reportedly considering would maintain one part focused on informing students and consumers with raw, unadjusted data and the other focused on holding institutions accountable with data adjusted for the populations of students they serve. The first system described dovetails well with the comments NCAN submitted in the last round: “NCAN’s primary interest in the college ratings system is to assist the Department in building a tool that will allow students to identify institutions where they are likely to persist and complete as part of their college search process.” Not only would such a system be valuable for NCAN member programs, but it would also serve as a resource for students across the country who are not being served by access and success programs. College access advocates could use these ratings to “promote attendance at high-performing institutions and influence low-performing institutions to take serious steps to improve their work with historically underserved students.”

In order to hasten the availability of ratings that could encourage students to attend institutions that are a better fit and could provide better outcomes for them, we suggested in our comments (based on feedback from members) that the Department incorporate the ratings system into its College Navigator tool. In the past, the Department has proposed three groupings of institutions for the ratings: a band of high performers, a band of low performers, and a group in the middle. The most significant addition to the College Navigator would be highlighting the high performers (blue ribbon) and low performers (red flag), which would be helpful for consumers at a quick glance. Students considering low-performing institutions could see the red flag as an immediate warning sign to reconsider the institution. The majority of students will be examining institutions that primarily fall into the middle categories. This reality makes it vital that a clear, unadjusted, data point that includes raw numbers be listed for each metric that also includes a performance measure. This will help students, and their advisors/counselors, to differentiate among those in the middle group.

In our comments, we acknowledged that the Department has suggested splitting colleges into two groups: primarily four-year and primarily two-year institutions. Although we recognize this division, we urged the Department to remember that “many low-income students compare institutions that they know or are close to them, meaning they are frequently looking at both two-year and four-year institutions…[and that] students must be able to bring up both two-year and four-year institutions in their searches.”

NCAN also made suggestions about which individual metrics should be included in the college ratings system.

No matter the final metrics included in the system, we emphasized that it is crucial that the awareness campaign “use several avenues and…consider that many post-traditional students are not based in the high school settings so will need a different type of outreach.” There are any number of sources through which the ratings tool could be disseminated, including social and traditional media, existing campaigns like College Goal Sunday, and even work centers, GED testing sites, and tax completion centers. The substantial effort being invested in the development of these ratings must not be allowed to go to waste by not reaching the very many students who could be most positively affected by the information these measures provide. NCAN will continue to keep our members informed of news related to the college ratings tool and looks forward to continuing to share the voices of the programs who serve over two million students with both Department officials and the education field more broadly.

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