University News

Admins react hesitantly to federal college ranking system

The University may lobby the government if the rankings’ measurement criteria elicit concern

Staff Writer
Monday, September 23, 2013

University administrators said they are awaiting further details on President Obama’s plan for a new college ranking system that would be based on a wide range of affordability and performance metrics.

The rankings — to be released by the U.S. Department of Education before the 2015-2016 school year — would compare colleges to their peer institutions according to measurements of students’ outcomes, though the exact formula is yet to be determined, the White House announced Aug. 22. Potential criteria include graduation rates, graduate earnings, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants, average net tuition costs and other information about students’ costs, according to a White House press release.

Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 said he commends Obama for his efforts to help families access more information about college affordability but added that the University and other schools still need to learn more about the system.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said.

The ranking proposal follows the launch last February of the White House College Scorecard, a website that provides basic information about U.S. colleges, including graduates’ loan default rates and median borrowing amounts.

Administrators have not yet heard from the U.S. Department of Education about how Brown can participate in creating the rating system, Schlissel said, adding that the University may choose to lobby the federal government if it has concerns over the ranking system’s measurements. One potential concern could arise if the system subtracted students who transfer out of Brown but graduate at another school within four years from the University’s graduation rate, Schlissel said.

The University would also be concerned if the rating system measured affordability solely based on how many students receive Pell grants, said Director of Financial Aid Jim Tilton, because Brown has about 1,700 students who receive University scholarships but not Pell grants.

Administrators also expressed skepticism about using graduate earnings as a metric for the University’s performance. Measurements of graduates’ earnings are limited by reliance on data pulled from voluntary surveys with recent graduates, said Director of Government Relations and Community Affairs Amy Carroll.

Obama’s ranking plan does not yet have enough details to determine which schools are considered the University’s peer institutions, Schlissel said, adding that he believes Brown will be considered a high-performing school whether it is classified as a liberal arts school or a research university. “We stack up very well by all those different definitions, so that’s not one of my biggest anxieties,” he said.

Obama has urged Congress to pass legislation that would tie federal aid for students to their ranking performances by 2018, according to the press release. The federal government currently distributes $150 billion in annual financial aid to higher education institutions based on the size of their student bodies, rather than on performance metrics like graduation rates, according to the press release.

While Schlissel said he recognizes the importance of funneling federal dollars to the most effective schools, he expressed concern that such a set-up would disadvantage struggling colleges that are working to make progress on delivering positive outcomes for students.

“I think it’s very challenging to rely on rankings because it may lock in schools that aren’t as good that might be otherwise able to improve,” he said.


Peer to peer

Brown for Financial Aid President Alex Mechanick ’15 said he hopes the rating system will not reward Ivy League institutions for their generous aid policies while defunding poorer schools that are doing their best with limited resources.

Mechanick said the University provides substantial aid compared to many schools nationwide but should be compared in the rankings to other elite universities. The University has the second-highest net tuition cost in the Ivy League, according to a “college scorecard” the Department of Education released in March.

The University requires students with annual family incomes over $100,000 to take out loans capped at $5,000 a year, Schlissel said, noting that some of the University’s peer institutions with larger endowments are able to provide loan-free aid packages to their students.

But Mechanick said the University’s comparatively smaller endowment does not excuse placing financial burdens on students. “It’s not the size of the endowment — it’s how you use it,” he said.


Incentivizing innovation

Obama’s plan also proposes awarding bonuses to colleges based on the number of Pell grant recipients who graduate and requiring federal grant recipients to complete a portion of their coursework before they qualify for continued federal aid, according to the White House press release. These policy changes require Congressional approval before they can be enacted.

Tying scholarships to student performance would be advantageous to the University because Brown students with large financial needs graduate at high rates, Schlissel said.

Obama has also proposed capping student loan repayments at 10 percent of borrowers’ monthly incomes, as well as dispersing Pell grant money over the course of semesters rather than at the start of each semester to prevent wasting federal aid on students who drop out. The plan touts Obama’s intentions to provide financial incentives for innovative practices in higher education such as online course offerings and awarding credit to students with previous educational experience, according to the press release.

Schlissel expressed concern about the plan’s innovation incentives. “Once you start defining the kinds of things that the government will consider as innovative, and attaching money incentives to it, than you can expect what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that schools would overly standardize their practices to conform to government expectations.


Students’ take

Many students said they do not know the details of Obama’s proposed ranking system and expressed mixed views on its potential benefits.

Obama has “already done some great work to make colleges affordable for people,” said Akshaya Avril-Tucker ’15, adding that she thinks a ranking system might be useful to high school seniors and their families. But she said she is worried a rating system based on graduates’ earnings would fail to accurately measure a school’s performance.

A ranking system would only work if families understood its methodology, said John Brewer ’17. “I think it would be good as long as the criteria on which it was ranked was transparent,” he said.

Jeff Compton ’15, who learned of the proposal this summer, said he is concerned a college rating system would encourage schools to focus their resources on developing their science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. “It could cause colleges to let in certain types of students or make it hard to switch majors,” Compton said.

He said he is also worried Obama’s proposal to link federal aid to the ranking system by 2018 would not give struggling colleges enough time to make reforms.


  1. Ranking systems are a silly waste of time that bring grief to too many. Few casual readers really understand or bother to investigate the methodology behind the charts, and sometimes colleges fudge their numbers. Admins have other things to worry about.

  2. It would be useful if updated ranking criteria included questions about other metrics such as:

    • graduates’ debt-to-income ratio,
    • number of jobs held for at least 12 months since graduating,
    • length of unemployment (if any),
    • number of job applications submitted compared to number of interviews earned,

    • and perhaps some insight that sheds light on the financial situation of students whose parents/guardians did not qualify for significant federal dollars or University scholarship yet could not afford to send the student to school without inducing substantial financial hardship.

  3. johnlonergan says:

    In a time when student debt is approaching $1.3 TRILLION in the US, Brown prides itself on being in the top 10–in yearly tuition and fees ($55K). Simply answering “we give a lot of scholarships” doesn’t deal with the main issue: Brown offers a one-size-fits-all bachelor’s degree for an exorbitant price.

    a time when education is being changed in a revolutionary way, does Brown
    produce a new Magaziner-Maxwell type vision for change and improvement?
    No, it trims around the edges of the edges.

    needs to do four things well:

    Educate people from 8 to 80, including alums and those who wish to go to Brown

    Educate millions, not just the 1,600/year who choose to live on/near the

    Offer a broad spectrum of learning opportunities, from Freemium to on-campus.

    Offer the best teaching available–not in comparison to Stanford or other Ivy
    schools, but in comparison to Berlitz, Google and the best teachers in the

    Brown does that, such “strategic planning” will simply change buggy
    whip colors for the next season.

    Lonergan, BA ’72, Harvard MBA ’76, Medical device VC, San Francisco

    us in an effort to bring real change to Brown at

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