Department of Education: College Ratings System Will Focus on Helping Students Make Better Decisions

On June 25, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced that its multi-year effort to create a federal college ratings system will focus on providing consumer information to students, rather than comparing colleges through ratings or high-stakes accountability tied to federal student aid eligibility. This is a shift from the Administration’s earlier plans and follows over a year of advocacy by CLASP.

Later this summer, the Department will release “new, easy-to-use tools that will provide students with more data than ever before to compare college costs and outcomes.” According to the Department, the tool “will take a consumer-driven approach, providing information to help students to reach their own conclusions about a college’s value.”

Since January 2014, CLASP has made a number of recommendations to the Department on the college ratings system (previously known as the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System, or PIRS). We have offered written comments, testimony, a briefing paper on implementing a system that empowers students while avoiding unintended consequences, a briefing paper on the importance of presenting workforce outcomes, and comments on the Department’s draft framework. We appreciate seeing many of our suggestions reflected in the Department’s plans.

CLASP strongly supports the Department’s focus on leveraging information about college access, success, and outcomes to help low-income and underprepared students make better decisions about where to pursue their postsecondary education and training. By choosing not to tie ratings to student aid eligibility, the Department has addressed our concern that using student outcome measures for accountability would have unintended consequences, such as incentivizing institutions to serve fewer low-income and underprepared students.

We hope the Department will follow its plan to use labor market outcomes in the system. Earnings and employment information is important to students, who increasingly see college as a road to better wages. Low-income and nontraditional student who may be place-bound by work and family obligations—an increasing share of postsecondary students—may not have many choices of institutions. Employment data at the program-of-study level will allow these students to make an informed choice of program of study, increasing their chances of earning a family-sustaining wage. The Department is uniquely positioned to bring together existing data sources to provide employment and earnings results for institutions and programs of study.

Using program-of-study-level earnings data for the purpose of consumer information is consistent with states’ recent usage. Along with College Measures, a number of states have successfully created consumer information websites with graduates’ earnings disaggregated by program of study. However, with regard to accountability, only one of the 30 states with outcomes-based funding formulas for higher education uses graduates’ earnings. We hope the Department will take the lessons learned by the states as it develops its tool.