For decades, magazines such as U.S News & World Report have rated colleges to help high school seniors decide which institutions to consider. Now, the U.S. government is in the process of building its own rating system to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable for performance and to help control rising tuition costs.
When President Barack Obama announced this proposal last August, he said the federal government’s ranking would consider metrics such as the average tuition each college charges, the share of low-income students they enroll and their effectiveness in ensuring students graduate with as little debt as possible. He added at the time that he would seek to divert more federal student aid to colleges that scored highly in these ratings.
Government officials including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz have said these ratings may help families at a time when college bills are in many cases three times as high as they were 30 years ago even after accounting for inflation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of a public university was estimated at around $14,300 each year and $37,800 at private nonprofit colleges such as Yale.
Although the widely publicized U.S. News & World Report rankings consider a school’s tuition and graduation rates, its metrics heavily value a college’s selectivity and the average standardized test scores and high school class standings of its current students.
Experts have criticized the magazine’s emphasis on selectivity, saying it has led to an arms race where some colleges build brand new facilities or expand outreach initiatives to boost the number of applicants each year.
Still, college presidents and administrators have been resistant to the federal ranking system, which is currently being developed by the Department of Education.
Robert Templin Jr., the president of Northern Virginia Community College, said to the New York Times that the White House’s proposal was an overly simplistic solution to the complex problem of soaring tuition. Adam Falk, president of Williams College in Massachusetts, said a rating system has the potential to oversimplify and distort information.
Other presidents said concerns persist that the rating system would narrowly value financial considerations above a more holistic evaluation, adding that the rankings would disadvantage schools with large numbers of students who major in programs such as theater arts, social work or education, industries that do not typically lead to high-paying salaries.
Munoz said the White House is aware of these concerns and has met regularly with university leaders. She added that a draft version of the rating system could be unveiled by the end of the year. Jamienne Studly, deputy undersecretary at the Education Department and a former associate dean at Yale Law School, wrote a blog post last week reassuring skeptics that the rankings would “avoid overemphasizing income or first jobs [and] penalizing relatively lower paid and public service careers.”
Obama has made college accessibility a key priority of his presidency, pledging in his 2013 State of the Union address to deal with the country’s rising college costs. In January University President Peter Salovey and a number of other college presidents attended a summit at the White House pledging to enhance college affordability for low-income students.
This year, the cost of attending Yale increased by roughly 4 percent. For undergraduates who live on campus, the combined cost of tuition and room and board is roughly $59,800.