JANUARY 2, 2015 — The Obama administration has taken on the admirable but tricky task of rating colleges based on real-life factors that might matter the most to working families. If they’re going to scrape up the money for a four-year education, these families tend to worry foremost about how much it will cost, whether their children will graduate and get a job, and whether the new graduates will be able to pay off student loans. Less important to them might be what professors elsewhere think of a college, or how many applicants it rejects, factors that weight the rankings produced by various publications, most notably U.S. News & World Report.
It was obvious from the start, though, that a government ratings system would run into complications that might render it meaningless or unfair. Unfortunately, a preliminary sketch of the system, released to solicit public feedback, does little to allay those concerns.
The U.S. Education Department is rightly trying to avoid what one official called “false precision” — parsing minor variations among colleges and universities that make no real difference. But as a result, it is going so broad that the ratings would be all but meaningless. It intends to divide schools into three categories, essentially: excellent, bad and in between. Most colleges and universities would fall into the in-between category, which means that very few would receive a low rating. In other words, the only information families would get is that most schools are fine. That may be reassuring, but it isn’t especially helpful.
And it’s even unclear how useful the information would be when potential students consider schools with low ratings, which might turn off applicants for reasons that aren’t relevant to their situation. Does the school have a low graduation rate, or does its focus on fine arts mean that graduates have trouble finding jobs soon after college? Would students intent on a career in the arts care about the latter, or figure that the less robust job market in arts is still a better fit for them than one in, say, petroleum engineering?
The Obama administration has pledged to avoid simplistic comparisons that don’t reveal the real value of a college education. That’s to its credit, but so far, the ratings appear to oversimplify complex information and compare too many apples with oranges and bananas. Worse, administration officials are considering linking federal funding for colleges to their ratings, which would be a terrible decision. Once a college’s funding depends on its graduation rate, it can simply lower its standards to the point where almost everyone obtains a degree. The administration has given this an honest try, but it would be better off abandoning the project now than creating a shallow and misleading ratings system.