The Fate Of The Administration's College Ratings : NPR Ed Some say a vaunted attempt to improve the quality of colleges is dead on arrival. Let's find out why.
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The Fate Of The Administration's College Ratings

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The Fate Of The Administration's College Ratings

The Fate Of The Administration's College Ratings

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Obama administration unveiled a controversial new rating system today for colleges and universities. The idea is to rate schools on three dimensions - access, affordability and outcomes, such as graduation rates. Schools will be grouped into three categories - high performers, in the middle and low performers. The final ratings will be published next year. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed Team joins us to talk about this. And, briefly, Anya, what more can you tell us about what was unveiled today?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Well, what was unveiled today was a draft framework. It includes several different measures of the main topics that the administration's interested in. For example, in order to get at accessibility, you can look at how my students are low income. You can also look at first-generation students. If you're interested in affordability, there's a net price. And the question is what is the college actually charging working-class and middle-class families who apply. And then, finally, for outcomes, they are planning to look at completion, graduation rates, as well as some labor market measures, potentially graduate's employment rates in the short term, as well as their median earnings over the long-term.

BLOCK: Well, I mentioned that the rating system that's been announced is controversial. It goes beyond that. Some people are calling it dead on arrival. Why is that?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, the administration has the freedom to create these ratings and publish them. But the key part of Obama's proposal, starting back in 2013, was to link these ratings to federal student aid dollars. And that is something that the administration did not take full responsibility for. They said this would take effect in 2018. And now that Republicans have control of Congress, they basically announced that they have their knives out for this proposal. They don't really want more federal regulation of education.

BLOCK: Anya, if the idea is that these ratings help make colleges accountable, who else is objecting to them, and what are their complaints?

KAMENETZ: Well, in theory, of course, accountability sound like a great thing. In fact, this was originally a Republican proposal in 2006. But, in the higher ed world, a lot of people are saying, you know, we have problems with the details of how this is being done. So liberal arts colleges say it's not fair to judge us on the earnings of our graduates because they pursue lives of meaning in social service. Or colleges that serve lots of low income or minority students are saying don't ding us because of our graduation rates, we have this very diverse mission. And the new proposal, you know, the draft proposal now is trying to get around that by saying we'll make apples-to-apples comparisons here. We won't try to compare colleges across categories.

BLOCK: If you're talking about things like college costs and graduation rates, Anya, isn't a lot of the information already available to prospective students and their families?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, some of it is. The Department of Ed has introduced a tool called College Navigator, which includes net price, for example. But what is fun about the new announcement for nerds like me is the potential that the Department of Education will start tracking and doing a better job at releasing data on things like graduation rates. Right now, the most common federal measurement of graduation rates only tracks your first-time, full-time students out for, let's say, six years. And they're talking about getting a better measurement that would include transfer students and part-time students who really are more and more numerous these days.

BLOCK: Beyond the possible benefits of transparency in this rating system, Anya, what is the benefit if there are no teeth attached - no accountability?

KAMENETZ: I think that there is a benefit to transparency in and of itself. And the hope, then, is by using its bully pulpit, that the Department of Education will, and already is, moving in the conversation in a good direction. You know, colleges are going on the defensive. They're becoming more transparent as a result. And I think that students and families are starting to vote with their feet a little bit. You can see that particularly in the for-profit sector, where enrollment has really dropped, and a lot of that is because of the efforts like these on the part of the Education Department to just get people better information.

BLOCK: That's Anya Kamenetz. She's with NPR's Ed Team. Anya, thanks very much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Melissa.

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