For so many, this season of college commencements is a joyful one filled with visions of the future. College holds the promise of a good job, lifelong learning and community engagement. Yet for too many families the price of that vital ticket to the middle class is increasingly out of reach. That undermines the opportunity that is core to our American values, and threatens our economic growth and the common good. As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and assure that students graduate with an education of real value.
President Obama has set a goal of regaining our world leadership in college completion, and has made a commitment to keep college within reach for all students. He has also set forth specific steps to ensure that quality education beyond high school can be a reality for all families. As part of a broad plan to promote postsecondary access, affordability and meaningful outcomes, President Obama charged the Department of Education to design a college ratings system to promote these goals by increasing accountability for the federal investment in higher education and making better information available to consumers.
This is my second update on that plan, following an earlier post in December.
The President’s call for a ratings system is already driving a necessary conversation about exactly the right kind of questions: What colleges are taking on the vitally important role of educating low-income students, and assuring that they graduate with good results? What educational practices might help schools lower the cost to students while improving or sustaining quality learning? Across the country, from Georgia State to Franklin & Marshall, Purdue to Arizona State, Los Rios Community College to University of Central Missouri to CUNY and SUNY, there are exciting examples of colleges and universities engaging constructively with those questions and shaping their priorities to advance the same goals.
In an effort to build this system thoughtfully and wisely, we are listening actively to recommendations and concerns, starting with a student leader session, four open forums in California, Iowa, Louisiana and Virginia, and a national listening tour that grew to 80-plus meetings with 4,000 participants.
We hear over and over – from students and families, college presidents and high school counselors, low-income students, business people and researchers – that, done right, a ratings system will push innovations and systems changes that will benefit students. We’ve heard strong support for the President’s plan from state education leaders, who are working to figure out sensible ways to drive positive change, and also from students, educators and parents who have spoken passionately about the need to improve access to higher education.
At the same time, we’ve received useful feedback on the creation of the system and dangers to avoid. Many have spoken strongly about the need to reward schools for completion in ways that do not lead them to turn away struggling students. A viable system, they remind us, must capture the wide variety of schools and students with sensitivity. And it must thoughtfully measure indicators like earnings, to avoid overemphasizing income or first jobs, penalizing relatively lower paid and public service careers, or minimizing the less tangible benefits of a college education such as civic engagement and critical thinking.
In all of these conversations, nothing has touched me more than a young woman who testified with remarkable openness at our forum in Los Angeles. “I want to repay the government and private lenders for the unforgettable education I received, but it’s nearly impossible,” she said. “I feel like I’m drowning every day.”
Her college debt was destroying her and her brother’s credit records. We’ve met many students, from Iowa farm families to Louisiana working adults, struggling to find a good and affordable college option and worried about debt and repayment. By contrast, I think of the astonishment and delight of a Hispanic mom at a community center parent meeting who discovered that her family didn’t have to rule out for cost reasons the respected and selective schools for which her daughter was well qualified. Sensible college ratings could help all of them.
As this conversation has evolved we’ve sought the help of higher education leaders and experts. In December, we asked technical and subject-matter experts about measures, data sources, and formulas that might be used to generate ratings. We received more than 140 responses, including some fully-developed recommendations for designing an effective system. In February, we convened a technical symposium on ratings systems with people knowledgeable about measures developed by institutions, states, and publications. The scope of responses, complexity of the task, and importance of doing this thoughtfully and usefully led us to decide that it is worth taking more time before publishing a proposal for comment, interchange and improvement. In the meantime we are continuing conversations with educators, families, leaders and researchers. We are on track to come out with a proposal by this fall and a final version of the new ratings system before the 2015-16 school year. I look forward to updating you again on progress in the coming months.
Ultimately, we are committed to significantly increasing college access, affordability and results for the good of America’s students and of our national competitiveness. Fair, clear and powerful incentives and information will let us recognize colleges’ success and scale their innovations.
Washington doesn’t have all the answers. But with the guidance of thousands of wise voices, we can take action that will help more Americans realize the dream of a college education.
Jamienne Studley is deputy under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.