Obama’s College Accessibility Plan Won’t Rank Colleges Anymore. That Basically Defeats the Point.

Without using ratings, Obama’s new system to hold colleges accountable is now essentially worthless.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When President Obama proposed a federal ratings-based college evaluation system two years ago, it was the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to reform federal higher-education policy. The idea behind the evaluation system was to rank colleges based on accessibility, affordability, and the success of their students so that federal aid could be allocated for students at colleges offering the best education and value. This would encourage institutions to keep costs down while also empowering students to make smart choices for college. But some experts and academics denounced the idea, worrying the system would create a “shame list” for colleges and pressure them to lower their standards or purposely turn away certain students in order to score high in the rankings.

The Obama administration is now scrapping the ratings system, the U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday. In place of the former plan, later this summer it will release a collection of “tools” to “provide students with more data than ever before to compare college costs and outcomes.” The department promises a consumer-oriented website that will give comprehensive information about the country’s exhaustive offerings at the college level. In other words, the government is releasing a college-rating system—without the ratings.

This backpedaling was almost certainly triggered by criticisms that the plan has incurred over the past two years. According to the blog post announcing the change, in making its decision the department took into serious account the “feedback” it received about the impracticality of distilling many important elements of education into quantitative metrics. (Given college associations’ vehement, very public opposition to the plan, “feedback” is diplomatic.)

While some university administrators and academics may greet the death of the ratings component with a sigh of relief, this isn’t actually cause for celebration. Because now, the system—which sought both to lend a helping hand to students and to hold colleges accountable—is essentially worthless.

At the time of the original plan’s announcement, administration officials excitedly described the proposed system as a “datapalooza” that would push colleges to become more affordable and benefit students in a myriad of ways. Now, without a ratings component of the evaluations system, colleges lose that incentive to do better than their peers. There’s little reason for a school to spend time and effort making improvements according to the government’s metrics if no one is going to award it a shiny new reputation for its efforts. In addition, federal education tools are already unpopular and underutilized, so a time-intensive, data-heavy website without a clear ranking system seems unlikely to attract many new users—especially when up against well-known resources like U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings.

A ratingless system puts the burden of making smart college choices on students and parents alone—many of whom might not know how to make sense of metrics like retention rates and loan default records. Rankings would have given these students and parents an easy way to compare schools’ performances and value without having to do intensive research. Now, they must waste time wading through tons of data to find good options—a luxury that may elude lower-income families, exactly the group of people the new system is meant to help.

And even if families dedicate hours each day to perusing the government’s new site, there’s no guarantee they will make the best decisions simply because the data is available. “I’m all for releasing data that helps students make better decisions, but it puts a lot of onus on students. More consumer info will not suddenly create perfect markets,” tweeted Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. Without ratings, the remnant of Obama’s new college evaluation system could simply wind up a big, confusing mess—that is, if people pay any attention to it at all.