Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Ranking Education: Does Obama's Scorecard Stack Up?

By Elizabeth ClarkePublished October 18, 2015

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This post analyzes the Obama administration's ongoing efforts to provide a centralized government resource for students to compare their higher education options. It takes a closer look at the new College Scorecard system, which evolved form the President's original controversial plan to rank all colleges and universities.
In August of 2013, President Obama announced a radical plan to rank all US institutions of higher education on a series of factors identified by the federal government. This plan was largely a response to rising concerns about the affordability of college in the United States, and the exclusion of lower-income groups from both the higher education dialogue and experience.  The announcement included a controversial promise to link colleges’ tuition and graduation rates to federal funding; schools that proved unaffordable for students would lose federal aid. 

The overall plan was an unprecedented show of the federal government’s commitment to, and stake in, higher education policy. This expression of power elicited outcries from politicians and educators alike; while many conservatives argued that the Department of Education had no business ranking private institutions, various educators thought that financially based ranking criteria would derail the significance of a liberal arts curriculum. Others still worried about the data itself: without a uniform, mandatory data-collection process, how could one be sure that all institutions were accurately and fairly represented?
Unsurprisingly, the President’s plan never came into existence. In it’s place, the federal government recently unveiled a new website, aptly named College Scorecard, that aims to provide students and their families with the necessary data to make informed college application decisions.  While the website has abandoned the original goal of ranking schools, it does provide info-graphics that show how a school compares to the national average on a number of factors. Users can see how a given college or university stacks up to others in terms of average annual cost, graduation rate, percentage of students paying down their debt, percentage of students who receive federal funding, average salary after graduation, and more.  The homepage search tool allows users to find schools based on program offerings, size, location, and name; findings can then be filtered by a number of factors, such as cost or graduation rate.
The response to the new website has been varied. To date, the most serious criticism questions the validity of the website’s data; in comparing Department of Education data with that of other independent education organizations, various inconsistencies have been found. One analysis found that graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients could be off by an average of 10 percentage points. For instance, the Department of Education’s data says that Boston University Pell Grant recipients have a 25 percent graduation rate, yet the University’s self-reported figure is 84 percent.  Though this is the most extreme case of inconsistency, it underscores the need for more verifiable data, and accurate reporting on the part of educational institutions.  One reason the government may not have valid data on Pell Grant recipients is that a legislative loophole protects colleges from having to report such information to the government, even though reporting graduation rates is required in other circumstances. Nevertheless, many people agree that the College Scorecard will never be a truly valuable tool until the data it provides is knowingly reliable. 

Beyond data accuracy, there seems to be agreement that the scorecard isn’t the straightforward ranking system that the administration originally promised.  NPR demonstrated the diversity of information available of the site by asking three top education experts to rank the nation’s top 50 schools using some of College Scorecard’s data. The results varied greatly depending on the category of focus. For instance, when rankings prioritize income later in life, small, little-known colleges rise to the top of the list. When the focus is schools that best serve low-income students, Harvard, and its huge endowment, claims the number one spot.  In this way, the website aims to provide a large amount of data in many categories of supposedly equal standing, rather than attempting to provide a definitive, and oftentimes arbitrary, ranking of schools. 

Even in the face of such diverse information, some people continue to deride the federal government’s focus on financial outcomes, such as post-graduation income and incidence of debt. In a New York Times opinion piece, Carol Schneider, the President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, argued that the new scorecard “accelerates what has been a narrowing of the American dialogue about the purposes of higher education.” Along with others, she claimed that the focus on salaries overshadows an equally important conversation on the significance of creativity, public service, and curriculum breadth in education.

Despite such critics, one could argue that the website does its best to achieve a balance between practical and far-reaching: a challenge that many education institutions and tools struggle with today. The President’s original plan would have almost certainly oversimplified the value of higher education by placing all schools under a very limited, and inflexibly defined, microscope.  The scorecard seems to account for the fact that American students have diverse needs and desires when it comes to applying to college. A White House press release claims that the website’s creators engaged with users during all stages of development and did comprehensive prototype testing with students; as a result, the tool aims to “empower Americans to rate colleges based on what matters most to them.” With advanced search options and comprehensive information on school offerings and aid options, the website seems to fulfill this goal.

Furthermore, the focus on financial factors may upset some players in the education field, but millions of young people in this country don’t have the privilege to ignore predicted future earnings or debt when applying to college. The disagreement over the right way to quantify schools may come from the fact that there isn’t one most important factor in a good education; it all depends on the background and goals of the student. Despite its weaknesses, Obama’s College Scorecard begins the journey of providing a diverse population of students and families with the necessary information to meet their equally diverse goals.  The goal for the coming months should be to verify that the available information accurately depicts the costs and outcomes of students’ many education options.