Helping families navigate their higher education options

From the start of this Administration, President Obama has charged our team to join him in doing everything we can to make college an affordable reality for everyone. As part of that effort, in August 2013, he asked us to develop a system that will help students compare the value offered by colleges and that will hold institutions accountable for preparing their students to be successful.

Today, I want to update you on our progress as part of that effort.

Since the President outlined this initiative, we have seen even more progress toward these broader goals. The higher education conversation has shifted from simply ensuring access to one that focuses on success – supporting students through completion and readiness for careers, citizenship and life. We’ve recognized that there is great value in the colleges and universities who serve students from all backgrounds and provide them with a quality education at an affordable price – and that spending more money and excluding more students are not necessarily signs of quality. We’re seeing important signs of progress. Some States and colleges are taking bold steps toward lowering costs and improving outcomes. And in addition to a higher-than-ever high school graduation rate, more Americans are completing degrees than ever before, including more Latino and African-American students.

Building on this momentum, consistent with the objectives laid out by the President, it is critical to ensure that we are doing all we can to:

  • Help families choose a college that works for them – and that they can afford – and create a user-friendly tool that supports that selection and comparison process
  • Increase transparency and make information about schools’ outcomes free and useful
  • Improve our measurements of college outcomes so that students and taxpayers get the most for their investment
  • Engage students, parents, higher education leaders, researchers, experts, counselors and advocates about how best to meet these objectives

We are pleased to report that we are making progress toward those goals. And as part of this update, as we have over the course of the last two years, we want to share some of what we have heard as we have continued working on this project:

  • Students of all backgrounds, but especially lower-income students and those who counsel them, are eager for additional information that will help them make smart choices among their college options, and they would welcome the federal government lending its credibility and resources to this effort.
  • Colleges have many missions and serve many different kinds of students. Developing meaningful ways to evaluate them through a rating system is an extremely complex and iterative process that appropriately takes time and thoughtfulness.
  • While no single measure is perfect, and many important elements of education cannot be captured by quantitative metrics, cultivating and releasing data about performance drives the conversation forward to make sure colleges are focused on access, affordability and students’ outcomes.

Taking into account that feedback, and to advance the overarching goals set by the President, later this summer we plan to release new, easy-to-use tools that will provide students with more data than ever before to compare college costs and outcomes. This college ratings tool will take a more consumer-driven approach than some have expected, providing information to help students to reach their own conclusions about a college’s value. And as part of this release, we will also provide open data to researchers, institutions and the higher education community to help others benchmark institutional performance.

Through our research and our conversations with the field, we have found that the needs of students are very diverse and the criteria they use to choose a college vary widely. By providing a wealth of data – including many important metrics that have not been published before – students and families can make informed comparisons and choices based on the criteria most important to them. With assistance from the creative U.S. Digital Services team, we are using feedback from students, parents, college advisors and high school guidance counselors to examine how we can make critical information about college cost and outcomes relevant and useful to guide decisions about college search and selection.

At the same time, we will continue our efforts to identify colleges providing the best value and encourage all colleges to improve. We will share this new data and methodological considerations with institutions, researchers, app developers and other interested players to jumpstart and accelerate efforts across the country to develop meaningful metrics for accountability, and – as the President asked – we will continue to improve these measurements and find ways to make sure that student aid investments are directed to colleges that provide meaningful opportunities and deliver a quality, affordable education for their students.

We are looking forward to unveiling the new tools later this summer, and continuing to work with the community to make sure that we all are helping to make affordable, high-quality higher education a reality for everyone.

Jamienne Studley is the Deputy Under Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education.

Owning the Challenge: Summit Helps Community-wide Teams Strengthen Collaboration to Boost College Completion

Q: What do Camden, Denver, Spartanburg and Minneapolishave in common with Albany, New York; Baltimore; Kansas City, Missouri; Providence, Rhode Island; the Rio Grande Valley and McAllen, Texas; and Riverside County, California?

A: On July 31, leadership teams from each of these communities took part in a lively, constructive workshop hosted by the White House and the Department of Education. The teams came together to catalyze and expand collaboration across the K-12 and higher education sectors, as well as with community, business, and philanthropic partners, to significantly increase college access and completion.

The goal of the workshop was to support and accelerate these partnerships’ efforts by highlighting lessons learned from successful efforts for sharing effective policies and practices, connecting teams with experts and resources, and building relationships within communities.

Secretary Arne Duncan kicked off the day by saying, “This for me is very personal work. We never had an opportunity quite like this when I was in Chicago… having people come together, work together, and understand the goal of college completion as a national priority. It’s so exciting that you are stepping up to this challenge.”

Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a SUNY System educator and Albany team member, said, “This is about all of us owning the challenge.” That spirit of shared investment for shared success propelled discussions throughout the day. She also challenged communities to think about how they could shift from being “program rich, system poor” to real cohesiveness and systemic change.

Participants eagerly dived into discussions of effective data sharing and looping across K-12 and higher education, along with strategies for college advising and counseling, developmental education, and accelerating college level work.

Several attendees said the workshop was the first time that leaders of their key education sectors had gathered at the same table. One participant called it “an historic occasion” because of the new links forged among her community’s players.

President Robert Templin of Northern Virginia Community College put his finger on a critical element of community collaboration: “jointly owning a common outcome.” Another participant picked up that theme when she said that her community tracked significant sets of data, but had never established ambitious shared goals for student achievement. Jeff Edmondson of Strive Together added an important factor when he said, to many nods, “Partnerships move at the speed of trust.”

The Partnership Workshop is part of the White House College Opportunity Initiative, a call to action by the President and First Lady to accelerate college completion through a set of targeted commitments by colleges and universities, non-profit groups, states and cities, philanthropy and other allies.

At the first White House Summit in January, many organizations recognized that the success of their efforts to increase academic preparation and broaden the pipeline to college would depend in part on building an even stronger foundation of early and K-12 education. These groups urged the White House and Department of Education to reach out to K-12 leaders and community organizations, and this new wave of city-based partnerships reflects an enthusiastic response to that suggestion to broaden the universe of players who can help promote real progress toward achieving local, state and national college completion goals.

With the White House College Opportunity Initiative continuing and a second Summit planned for December, more partners have a chance to “own the challenge” and build powerful momentum for even greater progress in 2015.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education.