Blame Congress for problems with planned college ratings system

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that this fall, it will finally publish a draft version of the college ratings system that President Obama promised last summer. The system would rate all of the nation's colleges — public, private and for-profit — according to three key indicators of value: access, affordability, and outcomes. But despite the attention Congress itself has recently paid to college affordability and value, the department's proposal has caused some consternation among certain members. Lawmakers have undoubtedly heard plenty from colleges and universities about real problems with a ratings system. And now a few members are reportedly mobilizing to prevent the department from spending federal dollars on developing or implementing the system. But that's not the only thing lawmakers can do to limit the problems of a new ratings system: They can vote to repeal the ban on a student unit record system.

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One of the biggest objections to the proposed ratings system is the poor quality of existing data. The federal graduation rate measure, for example, encompasses only students who are enrolled in college for the first time and who enroll full-time. Yet almost 40 percent of college students attend school part-time and 60 percent ultimately attend more than one school. That means community colleges that seek to help many of their students transfer to a four-year college and institutions that serve large adult learner populations can't get "credit" for many of their students' successes.

But there is a solution to poor quality data. The idea was first batted about around 2005, when Bush administration officials identified a "student unit record system" as a solution to many of the limitations of existing and burdensome data collections. The system would collect individual-level data already held by institutions and many states — dates of enrollment and completion, for example — and connect those records across states and schools to better understand how students fared at and across particular institutions. And it has the added benefit of simplifying federal data reporting by the colleges themselves, which currently spend more than 850,000 hours every year responding to a series of department surveys.

But the idea suffered a quick demise in the halls of Congress after intense lobbying from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). Other tepidly supportive lobbying associations for public colleges were cowed by NAICU during the debate. So in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) added a provision to the bill prohibiting the Department of Education from maintaining a unit record database.

Since then, the demand for better higher education data has skyrocketed, especially among lawmakers concerned with accountability for the $150 billion per year the federal government spends on higher education. Even Foxx herself has noticed that the current system isn't working. At a 2012 hearing on higher education data, she remarked: "We have so much data and we seem to know so little. What a tragedy for all the money that we're spending in this country."

Given that tragedy, the unit record system idea is back in vogue. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) introduced a bill last year, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act (S. 915), that would repeal the ban and permit the department to establish a unit record database. And in light of the college ratings system announcement, stakeholders from university leaders to researchers to policymakers have renewed calls for the student unit record database. All three lobbying associations that represent public colleges — and 73 percent of the entire undergraduate population — now publicly support repealing the ban.

When the department releases the ratings system this year, it will no doubt be subject to endless scrutiny from the thousands of people watching and waiting. But think twice before blaming the administration for all of its limitations. While the ratings system is being developed by the Department of Education, it's Congress that has prevented the collection of information needed to answer basic questions about how well our nation's colleges and universities are serving students. And only Congress can fix that.

McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.