Progress Toward Designing a New System of College Ratings

This is the third in a series of posts about the Department’s new college ratings system.

Read the first blog in this series.

Read the second blog in this series.

female indian university student using laptop

In today’s world, college should not be a luxury that only some Americans can afford to enjoy; it is an economic, civic and personal necessity for all Americans. Expanding opportunity for more students to enroll and succeed in college, especially low-income and underrepresented students, is vital to building a strong economy with a thriving middle class and critical to ensuring a strong democracy. That is why President Obama believes the United States must lead the world in college attainment, as our country did a generation ago.

Since the President took office, the Administration has increased Pell Grants by more than $1,000 a year, created the new American Opportunity Tax Credit worth up to $10,000 over four years of college, capped student loan payments to 10 percent of monthly income, and laid out an ambitious agenda to keep college affordable. We have focused on improving college performance, promoting innovation and competition that can lead to breakthroughs on cost and quality, and helping students and families manage their student loan debt after college.

The development of a college ratings system is an important part of the President’s plan to expand college opportunity by recognizing institutions that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds; focus on maintaining affordability; and succeed at helping all students graduate with a degree or certificate of value. Our aim is to better understand the extent to which colleges and universities are meeting these goals. As part of this process, we hope to use federal administrative data to develop higher quality and nationally comparable measures of graduation rates and employment outcomes that improve on what is currently available.

Over the past year, we’ve had many conversations with a wide range of stakeholders including colleges and universities, students and parents, researchers, statisticians, economists, and advocates. Together, we considered tough questions that needed to be thoughtfully addressed in designing a meaningful system of ratings that meets the aims of: (1) helping colleges and universities measure, benchmark, and improve in fulfilling the principles of access, affordability, and outcomes; (2) helping students and families make informed choices when searching for and selecting a college; and (3) developing a framework that could eventually align the incentives and accountability provisions in the federal student aid program with these key principles.

The Department has now published a framework and questions for public review and comment at www.ed.gov/collegeratings. We’ve also posted a fact sheet that summarizes the basic rating categories, institutional groupings, data, metrics, and tools we are currently weighing in designing the system. This is our next step in designing the college ratings system, and the framework lays out the options and questions we are actively considering.

Our thinking has been informed by insights from stakeholders and experts about how best to use transparency and accountability to achieve our goals using available and attainable data. With this release, we have tried to be clear about pros and cons of alternatives; to explain what data are available and what analyses are underway to inform development of the ratings; and to invite comment on specific issues. Throughout our conversations, we’ve been urged by the field to move forward carefully and to share the evolving approach to the ratings methodology widely. We are therefore seeking public feedback on our proposed approach and potential metrics before analyzing actual data and generating specific institutional ratings.

At the same time, we deeply appreciate that a simple quantitative system will not capture all the benefits and outcomes of postsecondary education. Wide discussion of the college ratings proposal has already helped deepen the national conversation about our shared commitment to college opportunity and other significant measures of postsecondary education success – both tangible, like obtaining a diploma or job, and intangible, like increasing knowledge and skills, civic engagement, workforce resilience, and confidence.

An important part of the continued national conversation must focus on those broad benefits and contributions of higher education in the United States.

We welcome input from students, institutions and the public about the types of tools and formats that could be part of the system that the Department plans to release by the 2015-2016 school year. Submissions can be provided through this online form or by email to collegefeedback@ed.gov.

A college degree has never mattered more to the success of individual Americans, to our democracy, and to the prosperity of our nation and our economy. But we all – students and families, institutions and researchers, policymakers and elected officials, taxpayers, philanthropies, and states – need new ways to compare the accessibility, affordability, and outcomes of different schools to make good investments and wise decisions for the future.

With this latest release, we feel confident that we are closing in on that goal.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Under Secretary of Education.

New Tools to Support Students in Preparing for College and a Call for Innovative Ideas

Last August, President Obama outlined an ambitious plan to increase value and affordability in postsecondary education. There were a number of commitments he made in his proposal, and, today, the U.S. Department of Education is announcing further action on the President’s initiatives.

LogoPresident Obama told students and families that helping to ensure their debt is manageable is a priority, and equipping counselors and advisers with the resources they need to help students prepare for higher education and understand college costs is a key component. To meet these goals, the Department has launched a “one-stop shop” for guidance counselors, college advisers, mentors and volunteers to assist students through the process of choosing and financing their higher education.

The Financial Aid Toolkit, available at FinancialAidToolkit.ed.gov, consolidates financial aid resources and content into a searchable online database. That makes it easy for individuals to quickly access the information they need to support students on their path to college, including details on how to apply for financial aid along with presentations, brochures and videos.

By equipping counselors and advisers with financial aid information in an easy-to-use format, we can help to ensure that current and potential students get the assistance they need to successfully navigate the process of planning and paying for a postsecondary education.

Request for input on college ratings

President Obama also directed the Department of Education to develop a ratings system to identify colleges that provide a good value and to increase college affordability information available to students.

This fall, Department officials have been traveling to cities across the country, listening to hundreds of students, parents, college leaders, state officials, education organizations and many others about their ideas on how to best craft a college ratings system that would better inform students and encourage institutions to improve.  This week the Department will submit a Request for Information (RFI) to publish in the Federal Register asking experts and researchers to weigh in.

This RFI will complement the ongoing engagement efforts to inform the development a college ratings system that is useful to students and takes into account the diversity of America’s colleges and universities. The Department will continue to encourage the public to share ideas through collegefeedback@ed.gov.

Call for new ideas and innovations in higher education

Another major component of President Obama’s plan is to encourage innovation. More Americans are looking for college options that offer a good education at an affordable price. Innovation offers the potential to dramatically reshape and improve postsecondary education in ways that increase value by raising quality and decreasing costs.  This is a pivotal moment, and we want to do all that we can to encourage responsible innovations in higher education that build on promising practices and develop an evidence base so that the highest-impact practices can be identified, replicated and eventually brought to scale.

To encourage innovation, the President directed the Department of Education to shine a light on effective, innovative practices and challenged leaders from across the nation to accelerate innovation and build on success. Further, he directed the Administration to encourage these ideas by removing regulatory hurdles, increasing access to federal databases and simplifying pathways to higher education.  To do so, the U.S. Department of Education will launch a limited number of “experimental sites” to test new ideas. This authority under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) allows the Secretary to waive specific Title IV, HEA requirements regarding the federal student financial assistance programs to allow for responsible innovations coupled with evaluations of their effectiveness. Today, we are asking the public, including the higher education community and others with a stake in a more educated workforce and society, to send us ideas for experimental sites.

We invite input from a diverse array of stakeholders on topics to spur responsible innovation that increases college value and affordability.  In August, President Obama identified several promising areas where innovative practices could do so. These include:

  • Enabling students to earn federal student aid based on how much they learn, rather than the amount of time they spend in class, including through competency-based programs that combine traditional credit-hour and direct assessment of student learning.
  • Enabling high school students to access Pell Grants to take college courses early so they can earn a degree in an accelerated time frame.
  • Allowing the use of federal student aid to pay for assessments when students seek academic credit for prior learning as part of a program of study.

These are just some of the many areas where innovative experiments could advance our evidence base about approaches to increasing college value and affordability. We look forward to receiving your additional ideas. For more information on how to submit an idea, please review this Federal Register notice or the Department’s Dear Colleague Letter. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 31, 2014.

The U.S. Department of Education seeks to launch experiments that allow innovation to flourish, while also protecting taxpayer resources and building the research base for what works. In all of the Department’s efforts to encourage innovation and enable colleges and universities to increase quality while reducing costs, we value the input and partnerships with the postsecondary education communities and stakeholders so ultimately, millions of Americans can access a high-quality higher education

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education and David Soo is the Senior Policy Adviser, Office of the Under Secretary

Department Announces New College Affordability and Value Outreach

Making college more affordable for American families has continued to be a key priority for the Obama Administration, and in August, President Obama proposed a comprehensive plan to address rising college costs and increase college affordability and value. Since his announcement, Department and Administration officials have traveled the country and met with a variety of higher education leaders to hear their thoughts about the three components of President Obama’s plan: paying colleges and students for performance, promoting innovations that cut costs and improve quality, and helping students manage their debt.

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, during the college affordability bus tour in Buffalo, N.Y., Aug. 22, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As part of the proposal to pay college and students for performance, the Department is developing a college ratings system that will better inform families about college value and affordability and encourage institutions to improve, while ensuring that disadvantaged students are served well. Last week, we were excited to announce the first of four opportunities for the general public to interact with Department officials, as well as the broader education community, and share their ideas about how to develop the ratings and address the key themes of college access, affordability and outcomes.

Today, Secretary Duncan announced three additional open forums, in addition to other outreach efforts and events:

  • California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif., on Nov. 6
  • George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Nov. 13
  • University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Nov. 15
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 21

Over the coming months, we plan to engage as many stakeholder groups and individuals as possible to help us develop college ratings that are useful to students and take into account the diversity of America’s colleges and universities. As part of our outreach announcement today, we are also unveiling a new College Affordability and Completion website that will host updated information, including details on timing and registration for the open forums, as well as new outreach events.

The public forums will build on the Department’s outreach activities already underway and will coincide with the Department’s upcoming Request for Information (RFI) to ask data experts and researchers to weigh in on methods for creating college ratings. Since the President’s announcement, officials have met in  Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C,  with groups including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Historically Black Colleges and University Presidents’ Board of Advisors, the American Council on Education, student leadership associations, independent college groups in Massachusetts and California, presidents from Hispanic-Serving Institutions – and over the next few weeks will meet with community college and business leaders, parents, students, faculty, and more.

We want feedback from students and parents, state officials, college presidents from a variety of institutions, higher education faculty and administrators, businesses and industry leaders, researchers, data experts, higher education associations, innovators, philanthropies, policy leaders and others. If you can’t join us for an open forum, please submit your ideas by sending an e-mail to collegefeedback@ed.gov or by mail to the U.S. Department of Education headquarters in D.C. at the following address:

Attn: Josh Henderson
400 Maryland Ave SW, 7E313
Washington, DC 20202

 Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education