Rating Colleges, Improving Outcomes
By Anna Cielinski
On December 19, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft framework for President Obama’s proposed college ratings system, previously known as the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS). The purpose of the ratings system is threefold: 1) to provide better information to students and families about access, affordability, and outcomes, 2) to generate reliable, useful data that policymakers and the public can use to hold institutes of higher education accountable, and 3) to help colleges and universities measure, benchmark, and better address the principles of access, affordability, and outcomes.
CLASP has made a number of recommendations to the Department over the last year, in the form of written comments, testimony, a briefing paper on implementing a system that empowers students while avoiding unintended consequences, and a briefing paper on the importance presenting workforce outcomes. We are pleased to see some of our recommendations addressed in the draft framework.
First, we are gratified that the Department plans to include workforce outcomes, like employment and earnings, in the ratings system. Students, especially low-income students, go to school to improve their earnings potential. A ratings system without workforce outcomes would be sorely insufficient. We especially applaud the Department because including workforce outcomes will be no easy task. The ratings systems will need to address a myriad of issues, including who is covered by the metric (all students or only graduates), timeframe of the measurements (e.g., one, five, or ten years out), and not creating disincentives to enroll low-income or underprepared students who may have uncertain paths to economic success.
Second, we appreciate the attention to creating fair comparison groups of institutions that take into account differences in institutional characteristics and missions. The strategy of grouping colleges and universities by predominantly two- and four-year institutions is a good start, and the framework rightly identifies additional characteristics for consideration like program mix and admissions selectivity.
One element missing from the framework, however, is disaggregating workforce outcomes by program of study. Many low-income and nontraditional students have very few institutions to choose from; they often stay close to home to live with their parents, or they have families of their own and cannot uproot to attend a far-away college. Yet, students do have the important choice of program of study, which often drives employment and earnings outcomes as much as the institution they select. Facilitating more informed choices of programs of study through better information on earnings, along with the other measures like completion, holds the promise of helping low-income, non-traditional students and their families move out of poverty.
In the coming weeks, CLASP will complete a full analysis of the Administration’s draft framework, and we look forward to working with the Department to improve the rankings system.