Anna Griffin/Staff Photographer
With the intent of providing prospective students with more information, the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education are pushing for a national college rating system that, generally speaking, would label schools as good, bad or somewhere in the middle.
The complex plan is looking to evaluate institutions across the country based on a variety of criteria, all the while keeping the public aware and helping students and their families make impactful decisions about their futures.
“Designing a new college ratings system is an important step in improving transparency, accountability and equity in higher education,” said Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, in a department release. “The public should know how students fare at institutions receiving federal student aid, and this performance should be considered when we assess our investments and set priorities.”
The plan is one of a few that President Barack Obama is hoping will hold colleges more accountable. If the rating system were put into place, criteria that would be judged include affordability, especially for lower income students, academic progress and how well students manage to pay off loans and find jobs post-graduation.
The idea is to link federal financial aid to the ratings schools earn, according to Dr. Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall who has also been advising the Obama administration on the rating system.
“The long-term goal for this is to tie every federal financial aid fund, so some program or student loan dollars, to these ratings by 2018,” he said.
While Kelchen notes that the plan is feasible, he believes there are several factors that will get in the way, the first being a lack of Congressional support.
“Congress has clearly said at this point that they are not interested in the ratings system,” he said. “I think it is extremely unlikely to happen, if for no other reason than the Republicans in the House of Representatives are not a fan of this program and they are likely to stay in power for the next several years.”
Kelchen added that aside from the president having been the one to propose the plan, he thinks the G.O.P. is taking the opposition to limit the role government has in higher learning. Contrary to what Kelchen said, The New York Times reported in December that the plan could take effect by the start of the next academic year.
Republicans are not the only ones taking offense to the proposed government regulation of colleges. According to a poll conducted by Gallup and Insider Higher Ed, only 16 percent of 675 surveyed college presidents across the country were in favor of a ratings system.
“I think it’s a little bit of government control, a little bit of uncertainty about how colleges will look,” Kelchen said when explaining why college presidents would be against the plan. “We don’t know how colleges will be measured.”
Another problem with the rating system is that there is currently a significant lack of data regarding some of the areas that the plan would evaluate. Those areas include measuring graduation rates, academic progress, how successful students are at findings jobs and the income they will receive post-graduation.
As it stands, there is not currently a national standard for accumulating such information. Also there is controversy surrounding whether or not all schools will be held to the same standards, as it is currently unclear. For example, issues could arise when comparing public schools with private ones, larger ones with smaller ones and so on. Despite multiple media reports saying otherwise, Kelchen said the proposed plan would take the profiles of different schools into consideration.
It is just unclear how that would be done. In regards to Seton Hall, Kelchen did say the University would rate well in the eyes of the plan if it were written into action.
“Seton Hall is likely to do just fine,” he said. “We do a pretty good job of serving low-income students, the graduation rate is solid and not a lot of students default on loans. Some of those key measures we look fairly good on.”
Some numbers do support Kelchen’s claim. According to Dr. Alyssa McCloud, vice president of enrollment management, Seton Hall currently has $75 million invested in student financial aid, with 97 percent of undergraduates receiving such aid and 95 percent of them getting scholarship or grant money directly from the school. Seton Hall graduates also do well when it comes to pursuing their careers after college.
Reesa Greenwald, director of The Career Center, said the school makes it a point to find out what students are up to after their time at school is over.
“Every year at graduation we survey the graduating seniors,” she explained. “They have to answer questions to get their cap and gowns, so we have a very high response rate to our survey. We ask them, ‘What are they doing?’ We ask many questions, but essentially the meat of it is, ‘Do you have a career-related job or are you looking? Are you in grad school or are you applying?’”
Greenwald went on to say that the school follows up with students six months after graduation. Of the undergraduate students who graduated last May, 86 percent of those who were looking for professional positions had been hired by November. As for graduate students, 94 percent of those who applied had been accepted into a graduate program. The 2014 survey had a response rate of 87 percent.
“Those numbers are great,” Greenwald said when talking about where she thought Seton Hall would do on the proposed rankings based on post graduate employment and placement.
Kelchen said there are areas the Hall could improve upon, including graduate debt and the cost of admission. The average student in South Orange pays just under $25,000 a semester with housing, meal plans and other fees included, according to the University’s website. With clear flaws, political partisanship and critics to deal with, the actualization of the Obama administration’s ratings system could be far from happening. While he may be doubtful the plan can come to fruition, Kelchen does, however, like the basic purpose behind it.
“The best part of the plan right now is the additional information,” he said. “It will make more information about college outcomes public, and that is clearly a good thing. If these ratings were done well, and they were tied to financial aid, it could have the effect of limiting the ability of really bad colleges to get federal funds.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.