Can Ratings Assess True Value of Diverse Colleges?

College is not simply a financial decision. It is a decision about location, personal family needs, institutional philosophies and mission, college culture, student life, education rigor and support, future professional aspirations and much more. In December, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) released an update to the proposed college ratings framework that includes what metrics the department is considering and how they will be measured. As a President of a small, private, nonprofit higher education institution with a public mission, I commend DOE for taking a step away from numerically ranking colleges against one another and support the value this version of the framework places on institutional efforts to attract, retain and graduate low-income and first-generation college students. However, I am concerned that the draft framework still may not reliably and validly assess the true value of the nation's diverse higher education institutions.

In line with Wheelock's social justice driven mission to improve the lives of children and families, I support transparency and information sharing that aids families and students in making informed decisions about college. At Wheelock, the population of Pell grant students is comparable, and in some cases, exceeds that of public higher education institutions in Massachusetts. In addition, forty-one percent of the 2014 first year entering class was first-generation college students, an increase of ten percent over a five year timeframe. The percentage of Pell grant and first-generation college student populations are important measures of access as a great deal of individualized attention and support on the part of higher education institutions, particularly small ones, is required to ensure this populations' persistence towards on-time completion of college. In order to address inequalities and opportunity gaps in this nation, there must be a deep commitment among institutions of higher education to open their doors to underserved populations and support their future success. These measures further incentivize colleges and universities to take on that mission.

However, as DOE moves forward to develop its college ratings system, I am apprehensive that the proposed metrics, primarily based in finances and outcomes, could overlook the intrinsic elements unique to every higher education setting that students can only acquire at a particular school -- these could be an essential factor in determining their success towards completion and work post-graduation. Any system endorsed by the federal government to help families assess the value of a college or university must try to offer this comprehensive insight.

Specifically, DOE's proposed performance metrics, such as post-graduate earnings, continue to raise concerns. Our graduates follow Wheelock's mission by making this a better world -- there is no cause more noble. These fields such as social work, teaching, counseling, and youth advocacy, do not pay high salaries, and are much lower than graduates of colleges that focus on business, finance, technology and the like. I relish hearing stories from many Wheelock alumni who find great satisfaction in their career choices and who are making big impacts in their communities and with their professional work. Alumni such as Gillian Budine ('90) who works tirelessly as part of the Community Network for Children Program ensuring that funding goes directly to support children and families in surrounding communities. Micaela Francis ('09, MS '12), a Child Life Specialist at the Joslin Diabetes Center, credits the training she received from Wheelock for making her dream of working in a medical setting helping children and families cope with the stress and uncertainty of hospitalization possible.

How will DOE take this variety of professions and pay scales into account especially for the helping professions? I recommend that it considers ways to capture institutional progress overtime. Wheelock has made significant headway in terms of its four year college completion rate while increasing its Pell grant and first-generation college student population over the last five years. The draft framework currently has no way to account for this accomplishment. Furthermore, while I am pleased that DOE no longer seeks to rank colleges, further clarification is needed around the formula that will be used to determine an institution's rating on the proposed three-tiered system and if such a rating will be given for each metric or as an overall institutional rating based on performance across all the metrics.

The proposed metrics overlook important measures such as levels of civic engagement by students, faculty, staff and alumni, student satisfaction with their institution and/or students who transfer yet complete their education at another institution. In order to do so, the system must have access to diverse data sets beyond the Institutional Postsecondary Education Data System and National Student Loan Data System. The National Student Clearing House could be considered. In addition, DOE should broaden groupings beyond two-year and four-year institutions. Wheelock's mission, academic offering and student body is radically different from Harvard University, for example. Institutions should be categorized with those similar in student body, purpose, and academic offerings.

It is through collective effort and great thought that higher education leaders can work together with President Obama and DOE to make movement on improving college access and affordability including the proposed rating framework. We have a responsibility to future generations of students to lessen the barriers to higher education, especially for those who want to enter social justice-minded professions. There is no work more important or rewarding than social work, teaching, counseling, and advocacy. I encourage you to delve into the revised framework and assess if it could accurately reflect the unique elements of your higher education institution and the value of a degree. If you share any of the same concerns I voice above, you can make your voice heard by submitting comments to Secretary Arne Duncan.