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Elephant in the Room on Proposed White House College Ratings: Data

Published:  August 22, 2013

President Obama’s new higher education proposal, just announced in a speech at SUNY-Buffalo this morning, would require the Department of Education to develop college ratings that highlight schools’ value by the 2014-15 school year. Once the ratings are developed, the plan is to then tie federal dollars to performance. Though students could continue to choose whichever college they want, federal dollars, at least, would be funneled toward the highest-value programs (and presumably, funneled away from the lowest-value programs). A ratings system along the proposed dimensions of access, affordability, and outcomes would provide students and families much deeper and better information about the quality and cost of their prospective colleges than they have now.

But there’s an elephant in the room the plan doesn’t address: we don’t know the answers to the questions necessary to rate institutions. And we can’t find out, thanks to “one of the worst laws in the modern history of higher education,” passed by Congress five years ago.

That’s because knowing the answers to questions like, “How do Pell Grant students fare at X institution?” or, “Do students who graduate from Y college earn enough after graduation to pay back their loans?” requires student-level data. But in 2008, Congress passed a little-noted provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act that prohibits the Department of Education from collecting such student unit records.

Despite the posturing as being committed to student outcomes, colleges don’t necessarily want the public to even know about their outcomes, let alone risk their access to their slice of the annual $150 billion federal financial aid pie. That’s why they’ve fought tooth and nail for institutional privacy (often under the guise of protecting student privacy) – to prevent the Department from holding them accountable for the results of such information.

Instead of providing useful information, schools report aggregate-level information on certain subsets of students (largely first-time, full-time students – the kinds of traditional students who make up only about 14 percent of the undergraduate student body today). That system, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), is extremely limited. For example, in addition to skipping students who aren’t first-time, full-time, graduation rates in IPEDS don’t count transfer students at all, even though a primary mission at community colleges is transferring students to a 4-year institution.

So as it stands, we have the worst of all possible worlds: Schools report tons of not-very-useful information to the government, and public officials lack the ability to hold schools accountable to much beyond a few baseline measures.

The president’s proposal, if it’s backed up with a reversal of the ban on collecting institutional information at the student level, could be a game-changer. The Department issues more than $150 billion in student aid to schools ever year – largely with few strings attached. Holding colleges accountable to actual outcomes, the kind that can’t be easily gamed, and providing that information back to students and families could mean fewer students left with huge piles of debt and virtually worthless degrees, as well as fewer taxpayer dollars wasted on low-quality degrees.

But a student unit record data system is a critical component of that. Without the data to inform college rankings, students will be left as in the dark as they are now. Good institutions won’t be able to prove their value to students, and bad ones will be able to hide in plain sight. Data alone may not solve the problem of excessive college costs, but data can empower students, families, and other investors in higher education to make the kinds of good choices that improve the system on the whole.

For details on how the president’s plan makes use of experimental sites, check out this post. Stay tuned in the coming days for more analysis of the White House proposal.

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