Ed Money Watch

A Blog from New America's Federal Education Budget Project

< Back to the Education Policy Program

Better Data Is the Backbone of Higher Education Ratings

Published:  September 6, 2013

When President Obama announced last month in a major policy speech at the University at Buffalo that he intends to rate universities and colleges, he was met with a barrage of questions from policymakers, researchers, students, families, and schools. Everyone wanted to know what a system that rated institutions of higher education might look like, and what metrics the Department of Education might use to score colleges.

As I wrote on National Journal’s Education Experts blog today, a truly valuable ratings system must have its roots in another policy proposal: a student unit record data system. Such a system would collect anonymous, student-level information that could be used to generate reports and analyses at the programmatic or institutional levels. It could answer many of the burning questions in higher education policy, like:

[A]re Pell Grant recipients and loan borrowers at Institution Y graduating? How quickly are that school’s students earning their degrees? If they transferred, did they ultimately graduate from their second or third institutions? How long did it take them, and how much debt did they rack up in the process? What did students from different programs earn two years, five years, or 10 years after graduation, and could they repay their loans on those paychecks? And the holy grail of higher education data, though it will require more than better data tracking: Did School X’s students even learn anything in college?

But a student unit record system is banned by “one of the worst laws in the modern history of higher education.” The ban was passed by Congress in 2008, and thanks to lobbyists for the higher education industry, nothing has changed since then—largely because it might bring to light plenty of information that colleges don’t want out in the open.

After President Obama’s announcement, industry lobbyists held the line. They charged that tying federal funding for institutions to the ratings would “have a profoundly negative impact on students.” But the real concern might have more to do with possible “profoundly negative consequences” for schools that do their students a disservice, saddling them with worthless degrees and a mountain of debt. In fact, the ratings could be a critical safeguard for students and families. I wrote:

…the White House has a responsibility to the taxpayers, students, and families who pay the ever-growing price for a higher education….The ratings system that the Department of Education develops—with significant input from higher education stakeholders—won’t itself be the perfect solution to our higher education problems. That’s why the White House’s plan also included incentives for innovation, cost control, and completion efforts on the part of institutions. But it is perhaps the most basic ask that the federal government could ask of schools: a little evidence that they’re doing right by their students.

Check out the full post here.

Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.