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Exploring the Ins and Outs of the Proposed Ratings System

AUDIO | Exploring the Ins and Outs of the Proposed Ratings System
The proposed federal college rating system could have a positive impact on the industry, as long as there’s a focus on highlighting the work of institutions that do as much as possible to improve access for all academically-qualified students.

The following interview is with Craig Munier, director of the office of scholarships and financial aid at the University of Nebraska. The Department of Education’s proposal to create a federal college ratings system has been top-of-mind for administrators across the postsecondary space since it was announced last year. It’s a topic that has received considerable coverage and, with the Department expecting to release its first draft of the ratings system this fall, it’s the subject of significant speculation for observers and administrators alike. In this interview, Munier discusses the pros and cons of implementing a ratings system, and shares his thoughts on the elements that must be incorporated to make the concept a success.

1. As a starting point, what would be the biggest advantages of having a college rating system?

It seems to me that some of the other popular media ranking systems —  while probably originally intended to create an additional demand and market for the print medium magazine — have had an unintended consequence of incenting institutions to do the wrong thing.

The advantage of a college rating system is that it could serve as incentive for institutions to recommit themselves to the federal, state, private and institutional partnerships for ensuring the maximum number of academically-qualified students can access higher education. The ranking systems, [on the other hand], have a tendency to provide incentives for institutions to try to recreate themselves as more elitist or selective by diverting scarce resources to higher and higher academically-prepared students, possibly at the expense of access to students who are otherwise qualified to attend the institution.

2. On the flip side, what are the potential negative ramifications of introducing such a ratings system as the one proposed?

It’s very difficult to find a single rating metric that can be used to measure all institutions.

There’s also the opportunity for people to misunderstand that a ranking system is not the same as a rating system. The way I think of a rating system is like the LEED certification for environmentally-friendly buildings. They have silver, gold and platinum levels that demarcate how environmentally-friendly a building is. All three are considered noble because the buildings aspire to be environmentally-friendly, but some put more resources and more commitment toward achieving a higher level of environmental friendliness. That’s more of a rating system.

The flip side is there is the potential that it could be misunderstood as more of a ranking system, where you literally sort schools in order from 1 to 100. Even though they are in an order, there’s really little or no significance between a school being ranking 25th and 27th.

Another potential negative is that some institutions that are otherwise very highly selective could prefer that the percentage of very low-income students they’re serving be a little more obscured. It’s certainly understandable that some of the things a college rating system would make more publically known are not things all institutions would necessarily agree they want publically known.

3. The current performance-rating metrics used in higher ed — graduation rate chief among them — tend to discount the progress of non-traditional students. What metrics will have to be incorporated into the federal college rating system to avoid this issue?

One of the challenges is that all of the data necessary to do something other than graduation rate probably isn’t readily available today. Most reasonable people would agree that evaluating institutional success based exclusively on first-time, full-time attendance leaves much to be desired in many areas, including non-traditional students who tend to be excluded to the extent that they’re more likely to be part-time students or students who stop and start as time and resources allow.

Some have suggested looking at a ratio of completed to attempted credit hours, which is a way institutions participating in the federal financial aid program measure satisfaction with academic progress toward completion of the degree.

The advantage of such a measure was that not every student aspires to earning the degree, certificate or credential. Some just want a certain skillset they believe they can achieve by just taking a set of courses. Many years ago, when I worked in a community college, we had students who were studying welding and they were reluctant to take the speech class or the technical writing class that constituted toward earning the applied science degree. They satisfactorily completed all of the welding classes and went on to be very successful welders. I would argue that was a success, though on a measure of graduation and completion they would not have been counted as a graduate.

4. What are a few other elements the Department of Education will have to put in place in order for the rating system to be a success?

If you’re measuring a rating system that’s designed to accentuate and recognize those institutions who are doing an admirable job of serving the greater public good as measured by serving a high percentage of low-income or first-generation students, then some ratio, like the ratio of undergraduate students who are program-eligible to the total undergraduate population, might be one such measure. That’s not the only measure. It’s not just about serving those students; you also have to serve them successfully.

That’s where the completion percentage of credit hours attempted would be a measure of how well the institution is doing in keeping students engaged; not necessarily graduating them, but retaining them. If they’re completing a high percentage of their classes, they’re more likely to graduate.

Also, looking at the percentage of students who borrow would be a measure. The total default rate indicators would be another possible measure; it’s something of a proxy for student success after they leave the institution.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the potential impact of a rating system and what needs to be incorporated in order for it to be successful?

We need to take the time to have the conversation in the community. It needs to engage all of the higher education community; it’s not intended to be another consumer tool.

I’m more interested in recognizing that there are institutions who are doing a better job than others at being a responsible partner with the federal and state governments and private foundations in ensuring that as many academically-qualified students in this country as possible have access to education. I do think that’s what makes this country great. We turn our back on access to higher education at our own peril.

This interview has been edited for length.

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