The following post was written by Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt, who served for a year as the CCCC Policy Fellow and will become the CCCC Assistant Chair in December. Carolyn is a full-time instructor at Yakima Valley Community College in Washington state.
In 2013, the Obama administration announced an ambitious plan to improve college “value” by “paying for performance,” “promoting innovation and competition,” and “ensuring that student debt remained affordable” (Fact Sheet).
Toward that end, the Department of Education developed an interactive consumer information tool populated with IPEDS and NSLDS data, the College Scorecard. This tool was designed to enable students and families to research and compare colleges on metrics such as cost, student loan default rates, graduation rates, and, most controversially, post-graduate earnings, in order to determine which colleges offered the best return on investment, or as President Obama put it, “which schools provide the biggest bang for your buck.” However, the administration’s ultimate goal was to develop a Postsecondary Institutional Ratings System (PIRS), which would rate institutions on measures related to access, affordability, and outcomes, and would tie federal student aid to colleges’ performance on those metrics.
Seeking buy-in from higher education leaders and the public, the Department of Education invited input on the development of the scorecard and rating system proposal. While many stakeholders praised the federal government’s efforts to improve the transparency of and easy accessibility to important consumer information for students and their families, the proposed rating system was met with much opposition.
Critiques focused largely on the rating system’s reliance on overly simplistic metrics, primarily tied to economic outcomes, and its use of incomplete and often inaccurate federal data. Additional concerns were raised about the potential consequences, particularly for colleges with large liberal arts programs and for institutions that serve underrepresented populations, of defining educational value and student success through short-term, economic gains, and of rating colleges comparatively based on these narrow criteria.
The consumer-facing College Scorecard, too, met with criticisms about the presentation of data as averages and medians, the lack of contextualization and customizability of information, and the failure to consider today’s heterogeneous student body and students’ priorities and needs in the metrics.
On September 12, 2015, President Obama unveiled the “new” College Scorecard, a consumer-facing website that provides similar information to the previous iteration, but makes no attempt to compare colleges directly or rate their performance.
According to the White House’s press release, the new College Scorecard was redesigned using student input and provides more comprehensive and customizable data.
While the Department of Education’s abandonment of a federal college rating system and federal performance-based funding is likely welcome news to the higher education community, the College Scorecard still aligns with market-based ideologies that have undergirded this administration’s higher education accountability proposal from the beginning.
The scorecard operates from the premise that providing greater transparency about costs of attendance and student outcomes will enable educational “consumers” to make rational economic choices about what institution will provide the greatest return on investment. “Empowering” students with data to rate colleges will also foster competition and lower prices. As Forbes contributor Ryan Craig describes, the Department of Education “should be in the business of trying to move higher education from an Economy of Reputation to an Economy of Data.”
While there is, of course, nothing wrong with making more reliable data available to the public, the metrics still reflect a narrow and instrumentalist definition of educational “value,” one that privileges economic outcomes. Even more problematically, the new College Scorecard reflects a fundamental misconception about how many—if not most—students determine where they will enroll, overestimating the role data plays in driving consumer behavior and the degree of choice available to students with limited financial resources. Students are theorized as wholly independent “consumers,” unattached to and unaffected by historical backgrounds, families, communities, cultures, and structures of social inequality.
The reality is college students today are no longer 18 year-old high school graduates who attend full-time without the responsibility of work or family. Most choose colleges based on accessibility—geographic, financial, and academic. Furthermore, this reliance on such a market-based instrument also seems to push the responsibility for identifying predatory institutions onto educational “consumers.”
The College Scorecard may provide some much needed transparency of information about postsecondary institutions; however, it continues to promulgate the misguided notion that education is a commodity and that it is available to all equally.