For most high-school juniors, the college search is on. Many students are pouring through college guides -- like the one from U.S. News & World Report -- looking for schools that match their skills and aspirations.
Too often, though, these guides present an incomplete picture of the higher education experience. They tend to focus on "inputs"-- things like tuition and fees, class size, and student test scores. Such data can be helpful but provide little indication of what prospective students can expect after they graduate.
The Obama administration is trying to establish a new college ratings system to, in the president's words, "give parents and students the kind of clear, concise information you need to shop around for a school with the best value for you."
For any ratings system to successfully measure which institutions are doing the best job educating students, it must focus on outcomes, apply equally to all institutions, and take individuals' attributes, such as family income, into account.
It's no secret that a college degree is essential in today's job market. The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree or higher was 2.8 percent in January 2015. Among those with only a high-school diploma, it was nearly double -- 5.4 percent.
College graduates can also expect to earn far more than non-graduates. The median wage for Americans with just a high-school degree is roughly $35,000 a year. For college graduates, it's $65,000.
This employment picture isn't likely to change anytime soon. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require more than a high-school education by 2020.
Unfortunately, many students and parents don't have the information they need to determine their best options for higher education.
Students and policy makers would benefit from a comprehensive, outcome-centered assessment of American higher education, which addresses several basic questions. Are students graduating? Are they passing their professional exams? Are they getting work in their field of study and paying off their loans?
The Obama administration's proposal doesn't answer those questions. Any system that attempts to should follow several guidelines.
First, any college ratings system must apply equally to all postsecondary institutions that provide the same educational services. In other words, one set of rules for everyone. This means ignoring labels like "university," "liberal arts college," "public," "private," and "for-profit" -- distinctions that are irrelevant when it comes to measuring student outcomes.
At the same time, the new ratings need to be sensitive to student demographics. Factors such as income and single-parent status can have a dramatic effect on a student's educational performance.
Low-income students who are eligible for Pell grants, for example, typically have lower graduation rates. Institutions with high proportions of Pell recipients shouldn't be penalized for serving those most in need of a college education.
As Michael L. Lomax, the president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, recently said, "It would be patently unfair to compare the graduation rates of Dillard University, a historically black college where I served as president, with, say, those of Harvard University . . . [which] has a $36 billion endowment and enrolls academically elite students."
A fair system would offer a range of expected outcomes for institutions, depending on the students they serve. That way, the ratings don't discourage schools from recruiting and teaching student populations that have historically lacked access to higher education.
The first federal college ratings are due in September, just in time for next year's high-school seniors to make their decisions about where to apply. That leaves the administration just a few months to adjust their proposal to place a greater emphasis on how students fare after they leave college.
If federal officials do not make those adjustments, students and parents will be no better off than they were before -- and may end up more confused than ever.
Paul is the president of DeVry University.