C Is For College Rating System

Career College Central summary:

  • Analogies abound for the Obama administration’s forthcoming college rating system. Will it be a Consumer Reports for colleges? Or a Good Housekeeping seal of approval? The Department of Education says it doesn’t know what the ratings will look like, although they’re expected to be unveiled this spring. Those are just a few of the comparisons that have been offered, perhaps to distinguish the ratings from better-known college rankings, as the department undertakes its rating endeavor.
  • The difference: Rankings order colleges from best to worst. It’s a big deal if Yale falls behind Harvard, or the University of California-Berkeley gains on Princeton. Ratings just say whether or not something is good — not if it’s necessarily the best. “The ratings system won’t highlight trivial differences between elite institutions or heavily reward schools based on the number of students they turn away,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in December.
  • The underlying question is: Who is the rating system really for? Duncan and other officials insist that it’s meant to influence consumer behavior, like other, more incremental higher education policies from the Obama administration: a “shopping sheet” to help students compare financial aid offers and a “scorecard” that clearly displays a given college’s average debt at graduation, graduation rates and other vital statistics.
  • Experts have said that a rating system might have a better chance at nudging colleges to improve — especially if the ratings eventually end up tied to federal financial aid, the Education Department’s holy grail. But if they stay consumer-focused, the Education Department is entering a tough market. Many of the students the Education Department helps the most — low-income students who are less savvy about the admissions process than their better-off peers — don’t consult rankings or ratings to inform their choices at all, experts said at an event last month.

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