What’s Next for the College Scorecard?

Posted By Derek Johnson on January 20, 2016 at 9:05 am
What’s Next for the College Scorecard?

In 2013, the prospects for dramatically reforming the way we evaluate and measure schools looked very promising. The Obama Administration rolled out an ambitious plan to rate all colleges and universities by cost and affordability while limiting federal student aid to the lowest rated schools.

“First, we’re going to start rating colleges not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities…what we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” said Obama while announcing the plan.

At the same time, Congress was due to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) at a time when there was widespread consensus that the status quo in accreditation, the main system we use to evaluate college quality, was badly broken.

A rude awakening

Flash forward to 2016 and the outlook for reform is decidedly murkier. In the face of pushback from Congress and the higher education lobby, the Obama Administration wound up scrapping its plans for a ratings system. Janet Napolitano, previously Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security and now president of the University of California system, summed up concerns from the higher education world about the perils of setting up such a ratings system.

“I am deeply skeptical that there are criteria that can be developed that are in the end meaningful, because there will be so many exceptions, once you get down to it,” said Napolitano.

Instead of rating colleges, the Administration would up offering a more robust version of the College Scorecard that provided data around average annual tuition and post-degree earnings, but fell far short of the kind of accountability system Administration officials were initially shooting for.

Meanwhile, the HEA has languished in a gridlocked Congress for the past three years. Republicans have held a series of hearings on the legislation over the past year and intimated that a vote could come as early as Fall 2015. Recently, representatives from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmed to GoodCall that there are still hopes to get a bill on the floor in 2016 but could not provide a more specific timeline.

However, any bill that reaches the floor will have to deal with two major obstacles: political shenanigans in an election year where five sitting U.S. Senators are currently running for president and a HELP Committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who was one of the main obstacles to detailed quality assurance standards during the last reauthorization.

As New America’s Amy Laitinen pointed out last November, it was Alexander who in 2008 submarined plans by the Department of Education to force accreditors to consider student outcomes and other metrics of quality.

“I authored the restrictions prohibiting the Secretary of Education from regulating student learning standards or requiring accreditors to adopt specific measures of learning assessment, which would have been additional federalizing of our 6,000 autonomous institutions,” said Alexander in 2008 during a hearing on the Higher Education Act.

More recently in his capacity as chairman, Alexander has highlighted the need to better evaluate college quality. However, he has ruled out a larger role for the federal government or Congress in the accreditation process and his focus – as it was in 2008 – appears to be on lessening the regulatory burden of accreditors, not increasing it. Furthermore, he has questioned the impact of the College Scorecard in guiding students to better choices: “The government has created tools from the College Navigator to the College Scorecard, but the government’s really not very good at doing this, and students aren’t really actually using these tools that much,” said Alexander last June.

What about the Scorecard?

So if accreditors and Congress are unwilling to genuinely tackle college quality and affordability, what are the prospects for building off the changes made to the College Scorecard? That depends on who you ask.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, outgoing deputy undersecretary of education Jamienne Studley provided some insight into the Obama Administration’s aspirations for the College Scorecard in 2016 and beyond. Studley seemed to echo Alexander’s critiques about the small number of students who are aware of or using the scorecard, saying the government has “a huge outreach challenge to have it reach more students.”

She also hinted that, having established the new scorecard as an economic evaluation tool in 2015, the Administration was hoping to build off that success in 2016 by working with and encouraging the higher education community to begin collecting and including data around learning and academic quality:

“That is the [next] frontier, now that the Scorecard has taken its first step. We very strongly invited the higher ed community to populate the rest of [the Scorecard. We want] higher ed working with students so it’s comprehensible [to them]. And [we want higher ed working with] the workplace so that it’s career aware — but not job-driven,” said Studley.

Change on the horizon

Historically, the higher education lobby has been loath to incorporate student outcomes when evaluating schools for accreditation. The Obama Administration (mistakenly) calculated that non-profit and private universities – eager to separate themselves from the for-profit schools at the forefront criticism about the value of college – would embrace a push for a ratings system that looked at these metrics. Instead, the traditional higher education lobby wound up forming an unlikely alliance with for-profit schools to put pressure on the Administration to scrap or dramatically roll back a ratings system. They were ultimately successful. As Alec MacGillis of Pacific Standard explains:

“The emerging alliance points to a new calculation by the higher education lobby. By throwing in with the for-profits, traditional schools might be able to capitalize on Republican control of Congress to limit the government’s reach into their own campuses.”

However, there are signs that accreditors are increasingly feeling the heat to offer more specific information around quality standards and risk increased federal intervention if they don’t. Over the last year several prominent figures within the accreditation community have gone public to warn their colleagues that the status quo is not sustainable, including Ralph A. Wolff, former president of the accreditation organization Western Association of Schools and Colleges and Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Wolff’s organization took steps in 2013 to open the accreditation process (and the metrics they use to determine college quality) more transparent, publishing team reports and commission action letters between the agency and schools seeking accreditation. Wolff has called potential federal intervention “highly undesirable and unlikely to succeed” but also warned accreditors that it is “no longer sufficient to say that accreditation’s greatest value is that it is the least offensive alternative to a federal system of higher education regulation.”

Schneider published an public statement on her organization’s website urging other accreditation agencies to be leaders in the push for better quality assurance or risk having others do it for them.

“[P]ublished quality assurance standards still largely ignore [broad outside] consensus on learning outcomes. Instead, the regional accreditors and their institutional members are keeping their goals for higher learning to themselves, hidden behind an accreditation smokescreen labeled ‘institutional autonomy,’” wrote Schneider.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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