A Response to the Naysayers: The Change in College Ratings is Not an Abdication of Accountability


July 6, 2015

By Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg

Critics and supporters of the Obama Administration’s proposed college ratings system seemed to join hands last month when the Department of Education abruptly announced it would reprioritize its goals and focus on creating a new consumer data tool by this summer instead of releasing its long-expected college ratings system. Critics celebrated the news while long-standing supporters criticized the Administration for abandoning the concept of college accountability for quality outcomes.


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Both sides are wrong.

While the re-prioritization of goals suggests to some a change in direction, it’s more like a pause in pursuing an overall strategy. Initially, the Obama Department of Education said it planned to create a rating system that would serve dual consumer information and accountability purposes. But after it received feedback from many in the higher education community, including reform-oriented think tanks that called for separate products for separate goals, the Department announced last March it would heed those suggestions and create two products instead of one.

Maybe a second product never will come to fruition. Regardless, a customizable consumer database can still play a role in enhancing public accountability for higher education outcomes. More data for more users to examine college quality is good. Some have joked the latest announced effort is duplicative of existing tools. But whether it is or not, the very combination of efforts presents a bigger, clear picture: combined, the Obama Administration-developed College Scorecard, Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, and the still-to come consumer tool all advance a conceptual expansion of a federal higher education policy paradigm that no longer takes college completion and college quality for granted. That’s a very big deal.

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Look, we’re not happy the Obama administration didn’t release or consecrate an existing college ratings tool.  It could have and should have released or blessed a ratings system that is good, but not perfect.  They exist.

Existing college ratings systems are not perfect in part because existing data at the public’s disposal is not perfect.  Why?  In part it’s because years ago the college lobby prevented the creation of a student unit records system. (You know, the same college lobby that uses the imperfect data to oppose college ratings.)  But existing data is good enough to identify the worst-of-the-worst colleges and link federal aid eligibility to the results.  So yeah, we think the administration could have gone ahead in advancing a new link between federal aid and college ratings. It didn’t.

But does this change in prioritization – more consumer tools first, federal aid tied to a particular ratings system second – signal that the Administration only cares about accountability in the for-profit sector? That it’s not serious about holding public and non-profit colleges accountable? Come on.

Building off the template of the gainful employment effort, the Obama Administration has been working since the fall of 2011 to advance regulations that direct States to upgrade their assessments of teacher preparation programs and ties those assessments to TEACH Grant funding. The Administration has requested tens of billions in funding – over seven consecutive budgets – for new initiatives that would leverage federal aid in exchange for State support for higher education affordability and quality reforms.

If anything, this Administration – and this President – has done the most of any in recent history to expand the federal higher education policy paradigm from focusing only on issues of college access and affordability to now also begin to grapple forcefully with issues of college completion and college quality. That’s how we got our gainful employment victories and why up to 350,000 Corinthian students will see their federal student loans forgiven and tens of thousands of students will receive debt relief from Corinthian’s high-cost private student loans. That’s how we got to discussions of risk sharing, accreditation reform, and more on the agenda for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Far from “poison[ing] the well” on future accountability efforts, we believe that the Obama-ites have established a path forward on higher education accountability – including its fights and debates as well as fits and starts.

Related: Preventing the Next Corinthian

Related: Strange Bedfellows: Elizabeth Warren and the Wall Street Journal


Soon it will be a question of how the next President – regardless of party – proceeds. It’s the same political issue as in K-12 education reform.  Will the next President only propose more resources or laissez-faire reforms for higher education? Or will he or she embrace the challenge of pairing needed increased resources and long-justified reform?

We urge the latter.

For more on the Obama education legacy and recommendations for the next administration, look for our forthcoming paper, “Resources and Reform: The Obama Administration’s Higher Education Legacy and the 45th President’s Challenge.”