Grading the graders

Government gets closer to federal rating system for universities

Colleges and universities across the nation are scrambling as the federal government gets another year closer to establishing sweeping changes to higher education, which most notably would include a new ratings system that would change the way institutions of higher education receive federal grant money.

The new system, which was originally proposed last year on Aug. 22 by the Obama administration, would rank schools based on factors such as graduation rates, earnings of students upon graduation or cost of attendance. The White House states that it is set to publish these new rankings before the 2014-15 school year.

In addition to providing an alternative to currently existing college rankings systems — where reports provided by groups such as Princeton Review or U.S. News are often criticized — it would provide a new way to distribute funds for schools, with Obama looking to allocate the approximately $150 billion in federal loans and grants primarily to those schools that would rank near the top of these factors. This tying of aid to ratings is set to take place by 2018.

Currently colleges receive federal funding based almost solely on enrollment, the financial needs of their students and their total expenditure. Critics of the current system say that it naturally favors large schools regardless of their actual performance, and that it leaves little room for interpretations of schools’ deservingness of funding.

However, this is not to say there is no animosity towards Obama’s new proposals toward college rankings. Many believe that it is futile to compare such a broad spectrum of different types of schools, and that the factors that are highlighted are not holistic enough.

“[The ratings system] treats higher education as primarily valuable for its use to markets, frames students principally as consumers and workers, devalues those disciplines and traditions of knowledge that are not of immediate economic value such as humanities and social sciences, and erodes the public and ethical aspects of teaching and learning, including fostering in students the skills of interpretation and judgment to become active and self-governing citizens,” Kenneth Saltman, a DePaul professor of educational policy, said.

It is also important to note that total amount of federal aid would not necessarily change as a result of these ranking reforms. The current total of $150 billion in federal aid is unlikely to drastically increase, and any changes would likely be due to adjustments for inflation.

The funding changes that result from these reforms would be almost purely re-distributional; however, this could have drastic effects in terms of what individual schools receive.


In the case of DePaul, there are fears that the system may possibly harm DePaul’s already small endowment. DePaul currently boasts a high percentage of students enrolled in programs such as theater, jazz studies or philosophy — programs that may be intrinsically valuable but not commanding of high salaries or steady employment immediately after graduation.


However, a few other facets — particularly, DePaul’s widespread enrollment of low-income students — may prove beneficial to DePaul’s placement in the rankings. One of the proposals for the new rankings system would give schools bonuses for enrolling large amounts of students eligible for Pell Grants, a federal grant that is given primarily to low-income or financially independent students.


Furthermore, parts of Obama’s proposed reforms towards college funding may have tangible effects on affordability itself. One proposed reform would cap required payments on student loans to 10 percent of a borrower’s income.


Another proposed piece of legislation would attach strings to individual student aid, requiring students to complete a certain amount of classes with a certain level of competency in order to receive funds.


“This possibly could result in underachieving students being removed from school,” William Sander, a professor of urban economics, said. The resulting reduced demand for higher education could potentially drive tuition rates down for those who remain.


However, Sander also concedes that, “It could also possibly result in more grade inflation and students selecting classes where they are more likely to do well.”


Ultimately, the final effects of these federally proposed college reforms are difficult to foresee. However, in the upcoming months before these reforms are established, it remains to be seen what changes, if any, will be added to these proposals. Alternative proposals to the Obama administration’s plans will undoubtedly continue as the nation gets closer to federal college reforms.


“The federal government is subsidizing bank profit by subsidizing student loan debt rather than simply paying for university,” Saltman said. “The federal government could [instead] redirect those student loan bank subsidies and fully fund all public higher education in the U.S.”