Revamped Federal Rating Plan for Colleges Unveiled to Mixed Reactions

The Obama administration released its long-awaited federal rating system for U.S. colleges and universities over the weekend, in the form of the College Scorecard, a website with interactive data to assist parents and prospective students with making informed decisions about college.

The new scorecard is a far cry from the original ranking system President Barack Obama proposed in 2013. At that time, the proposed federal rankings were intended to shame institutions with low graduation rates and high price tags into lowering tuition costs. Obama said he would urge members of Congress to tie federal financial aid to a school’s rank; colleges or institutions whose graduates amassed large amounts of debt or had low earning potential would score poorly in the ranking and lose access to federal aid.

This angered many private college presidents and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress; those opposed to the plan said it would cause schools to prioritize majors that lead to higher starting salaries, at the expense of liberal arts degrees like English and philosophy. The plan was revised several times before arriving at the current consumer-driven system.

The College Scorecard that was unveiled Saturday provides information on college tuition, graduation rates, campus demographics, and the average salary for graduates from all of the 7,000 U.S. institutions of higher education, as well as information on graduates’ ability to pay back loans. The data are based on information from students who have received a federal loan or grant for college, but federal officials say the figures are representative of all students. Further, the salary figures reflect student earnings 10 years after college enrollment and are not broken down my degree subject — two factors that have drawn criticism.

“Developing a system of this size and scope is a complicated and nuanced endeavor, and the department has done so without any external review,” Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), said in a statement. “Given what we believe are significant data limitations, this revamped scorecard may or may not provide meaningful information to the students and families it was designed to help.”

The earnings information is based on tax data from the Internal Revenue Service that shows the median salary of students 10 years after enrolling in college and compares it to the national average salary of $34,343. In this way, the scorecard intends to show how graduates of different institutions stack up.

In his weekly address announcing the College Scorecard, Obama said the U.S. Department of Education would work to improve the information provided on the website based on input from those who use the site.

“In the coming weeks and months, we’ll continue to improve the scorecard based on what we learn from students, parents, counselors, and colleges themselves,” he said. “The goal is to help everybody who’s willing to work for a higher education [to] search for and select a college that fits their goals.”

At this time, there is no indication that schools’ federal financial support will be connected to the information provided on the College Scorecard.