Parents and students can always use more information about graduation rates, tuition costs and student debt as they wade through the college selection process. The Obama administration's efforts to force colleges and universities to report those sorts of measures to the federal government will help families facing difficult choices and prod schools to pay more attention to controlling costs and better preparing graduates for the workforce. But the administration should think twice about a simplistic rating system that is raising legitimate concerns among university presidents.
The Obama administration's development of a rating system based on specific measurements is a response to the pressures of escalating tuition, staggering student debt and a new emphasis on graduates' earnings potential. The system focuses on measures of access, affordability and student outcomes, and it would grant federal aid based on ratings determined by those measures. Students attending higher-rated institutions could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable loans. Colleges and universities receive $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants. In 2013-14, more than 633,000 students in Florida were Pell recipients.
The rating system expected to be released later this year attempts to summarize a large amount of complex information. Under the plan, colleges will be given ratings determined by factors such as graduation rates, amount of student debt and earning potential of graduates. Based on these reports, colleges will be given grades like "excellent," "good," "fair," or "poor." But that flawed system would have unintended consequences. It could lead to inaccurate and unfair comparisons of more than 7,000 colleges and universities of varying missions, sizes and demographics. For example, institutions that serve low-income and underperforming students might be denied the federal financial aid that their student bodies desperately need.
As the cost of a diploma continues to rise, there is reason to increase pressure on schools to become more efficient and to provide more information about true costs. But rating colleges based on the earnings potential of their graduates would downgrade the value of a liberal arts education. Lower-paying public service careers that have a longer-term payoff — such as public education, social work or government — could be penalized. It's even unclear how accurate the income data would be, because the reporting by graduates would be optional and incomplete at best.
Parents and students should have as many credible resources as possible when determining which college best meets their goals and financial situation. The Obama administration can help gather those statistics in a central place, but it should reconsider the value of ratings that would be unfair to colleges and misleading to families.