High school students and their families for years have turned to college rankings for help deciding their next step. Compiled by magazines and test preparation services, the lists promise a definitive guide to the biggest party schools, sports-crazy campuses, and of course, the best universities in America.
Now, as tuition climbs and debate grows over the purpose of a higher education, the federal government is stepping in with its own ratings system to measure the “value” of colleges by holding them accountable for their cost and performance.
Announced last year by President Barack Obama, the ratings will assess schools on their accessibility to low-income families, their affordability, and their student outcomes, providing scorecards to consumers and possibly directing how $150 billion in federal financial aid is distributed.
Higher education officials and Republican politicians have pushed back on the plan, but the U.S. Department of Education says it is on track to unveil the ratings next fall. As more details emerge about what exactly the system will measure, California’s three public higher education systems appear poised to perform well, though the sprawling California State University and California Community Colleges will likely have more mixed results than the elite University of California.
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The department made its first significant development public in December with the release of a proposed framework for the scorecard, which would filter colleges into three broad categories: high-performing schools, low-performing schools and those in the middle.
Among the possible metrics are the percentage of students who receive federal Pell Grants, a need-based scholarship; the average price of a school after all federal, state and institutional aid is factored in; student completion; earnings after graduation; and loan repayment rates.
How those criteria will be weighted, or whether they will even be combined, has yet to be decided.
Some higher education leaders raised concerns that certain metrics could arbitrarily punish schools that accept large numbers of underrepresented students who are less academically prepared or send many of their graduates into public service jobs with lower earnings.
Those same officials have lobbed intense criticism at the ratings system since its announcement. They argue that tuition increases are driven by factors outside of their control, such as the growing cost of labor and declining state support, and question the need for the scorecard altogether.
The University of California is positioned to do well in the ratings system, according to Bob Shireman, executive director of the higher education policy group California Competes. He said UC’s “very impressive enrollment of low-income students” and first-generation students, as well as its high graduation rates and good financial aid program all will contribute to higher scores.
Leaders at some of UC’s nine campuses, particularly those that usually score lower on traditional rankings like the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list, see it as an opportunity to make more of a name for their schools.
“In the abstract, I’m not necessarily enthusiastic about ratings systems. But that ship has sailed,” UC Riverside Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox said. “So if we’re going to do it, let’s at least think about the future, not the past.”
Ranking formulas usually value things like endowment, reputation and selectivity that benefit elite private schools and promote exclusion, Wilcox said, but emphasizing affordability and access on the federal scorecard could change the conversation about what universities should aspire to.
“These are things that, to me, if we’re going to make comparisons, are the right things to make comparisons about,” he said.
In a mock-up of the ratings by Time magazine earlier this year, UC Riverside scored as the best value college in America, while the San Diego, Irvine and Davis campuses all finished in the top six. (California State University, Long Beach, was tenth.)
Wilcox said there’s an internal validation to performing well, but it’s also an opportunity to attract new talent and more grant money, as well as to show the state and the Legislature “yet again, what a prize these institutions really are.”
Even UC President Janet Napolitano, who told The Washington Post last December that she was “deeply skeptical” of the ratings, has mostly come around on the proposal, according to spokesman Steve Montiel, though using salaries after graduation as a metric remains an area of concern.
Prospects are fuzzier for the 23-campus California State University system, which serves a wider range of students than UC and enrolls more than any other university in the United States.
It will benefit from having low tuition levels compared to the rest of the country and extensive financial aid, Shireman said. But many CSU campuses also have low graduation rates, and the net price metric will include living expenses, which tend to be higher in California.
“So if they compare colleges with similar proportions of low-income students,” Shireman said, CSU campuses “may perform relatively well.”
CSU prides itself on providing a more affordable education to many low-income and underserved students. As Chancellor Timothy P. White noted in a statement, the proposed ratings framework “reflects the CSU’s values.”
The university hopes the ratings will help “policymakers to more fully appreciate ... the heavy lifting done by state institutions that are critical to our nation’s future,” he wrote.
Two-year colleges will be treated separately in the ratings system, but greater variations in mission among schools in different regions could make them more difficult to compare.
For example, “In a state like California, where we have traditionally not bothered to give people an (associate degree) before they transfer, the graduation rates can look very low,” Shireman said.
That’s what most worries Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, which already compiles performance scorecards for its 112 colleges and a database of recent graduate salaries by discipline.
Though he likes accountability measures that show individual schools what they’re doing well or are challenged by, complexities can be lost in comparison.
“California community colleges are more comprehensive” in academic scope, Harris said, while “others are more technically oriented” and some states offer bachelor’s degrees at their community colleges. Completion rates are also much lower among students that require remedial courses when they arrive, but college readiness varies widely from community to community.
“A consumer doesn’t know about those nuances,” he added.
Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.
A college scorecard
Federal officials are considering a ratings system for universities. Here are some criteria under consideration.
▪ Percentage of students who receive federal Pell Grants, a need-based scholarship.
▪ Percentage of students who are the first in their family to attend college.
▪ Average gap between the cost of attending and the amount of financial aid a student receives.
▪ Average price after all federal, state and institutional aid is factored in.
▪ Price difference for students who receive financial aid and those who do not.
▪ Completion rates.
▪ Transfer rates (for community colleges).
▪ Employment and earnings after graduation.
▪ Graduate school attendance.
▪ Student loan repayment rate.