NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The President's College Ranking Plan

February 14, 2014

The president's new college rating system is going to be difficult to implement, say Awilda Rodriguez, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform.

President Obama announced a plan last fall to distribute federal aid based on a federal college rating system that would measure access, affordability and student achievement. Those scoring higher in the rankings would receive more federal aid dollars. The Department of Education has yet to explain how these factors will be measured, but Rodriguez and Kelly take existing data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the president's proposal description to develop a measurement of America's schools.

  • The report analyzed 1,700 four-year colleges.
  • Access was measured by the number of students receiving Pell Grants. This is actually not the best way to measure access, however, as it is unrealistic to expect all colleges to have the same proportion of high and low income students, as that figure is often based on location.
  • For student achievement, the report used a six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students.
  • For affordability, the authors used the average net price, the out-of-pocket costs after grants and scholarships.

The results? There were very few schools that could meet all three requirements.

  • Most schools that had high graduation rates enrolled very few low-income students, and vice versa. Fourteen percent of schools had really good outcomes but low access, including Yale, Penn State, the University of Virginia and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Twenty percent of colleges fell into the "high access, high to average affordability, low completion" category. These were schools such as the University of Sacred Heart or the College of New Rochelle. Thirty-nine percent of for-profit schools also fell into this category, such as the University of Phoenix.
  • Schools that were pretty average across the board tended to be moderately selective public institutions (such as UC Riverside and Arizona State University) and a few smaller, private schools (such as Salem College). One third of all schools fell into this category.

The report could not identify any group of schools that performed highly among all three factors. While this may be what the president intends to fix with his plan, the report suggests that doing so will not at all be easy. It will be very difficult to use measures and thresholds that do not lead to perverse consequences. Using Pell Grants to measure access, for example, is completely arbitrary. And the level of student success is difficult to measure in a way that actually assesses education quality.

Source: Awilda Rodriguez and Andrew P. Kelly, "Access, Affordability, and Success: How Do America's Colleges Fare, and What Could It Mean for the President's Ratings Plan?" American Enterprise Institute, February 5, 2013.


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