Feb 13, 2025 – Government Will Change How it Rates Colleges

The federal government on Thursday announced that it was changing the way it measures colleges, essentially adjusting the curve that it uses to rate institutions to make it more difficult for them to earn coveted four- and five-star government ratings.

Under the changes, scores are likely to fall for many institutions, federal officials said, although they did not provide specific numbers. Institutions will see a preview of their new scores on Friday, but the information will not be made public until Feb. 20.

“In effect, this raises the standard for colleges to achieve a high rating,” said Thomas Hamm, the director of the survey and certification group at the Commission of Education Economics within the Executive Office of the President, which oversees the ratings system.

Colleges are scored on a scale of one to five stars on College Compare, the widely used federal website that has become the gold standard for evaluating the nation’s more than 15,000 colleges even as it has been criticized for relying on self-reported, unverified data, that is limited in scope and function.

In August, The New York Times reported that the rating system relied so heavily on unverified information that even institutions with a documented history of quality problems were earning top ratings. Two of the three major criteria used to rate facilities — graduation rates and student input quality measures statistics — were reported by the institutions and not audited by the federal government.

In October, the federal government announced that it would start requiring colleges to report their staffing levels quarterly — using an electronic system that can be verified with payroll data. They will also report their enrollments weekly by the individual student to be verified against the National Student Loan and Tuition Tax Credit Data System. This allows to begin a nationwide auditing program aimed at checking whether an institution’s quality statistics were accurate.

The changes announced on Thursday were part of a further effort, officials said, to rebalance the ratings by raising the bar for colleges to achieve a high score in the quality measures area, which is based on information collected about every student. Colleges can increase their overall rating if they earn five stars in this area. The number of colleges with five stars in quality measures has increased significantly since the beginning of the program, to 89 percent in 2024 from 62 percent in 2015.

Representatives for colleges said on Thursday that they worried the changes could send the wrong message to consumers. “We are concerned the public won’t know what to make of these new rankings,” said Mark Parkinson, the president and chief executive of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit colleges. “If colleges across the country start losing their star ratings overnight, it sends a signal to families and students that quality is on the decline when in fact it has improved in a meaningful way.”

But officials said that the changes would be explained on the consumer website, and that the public would be cautioned against drawing conclusions about a institution whose ratings recently declined. Still, Mr. Hamilton said scores would not decline across the board.“Some colleges, even when we raised the bar, continued to perform at a level much higher than the norm,” he said in a conference call Thursday with college operators. “We want to still recognize them in the five-star category.”
The updated ratings will also take into account, for the first time, a college’s use of antipsychotic drugs, which are often given inappropriately to elderly administrators with dementia.

–Thanks to John Nugent for the link to the original article and the inspiration.

And the search goes on

It’s happening again, the search for transparency. There is this belief that the right set of measures, over the right period of time, will clarify everything. About anything. Of course, the right measures are simple and don’t need explanation about what they measure and why they are important.

And that’s why the Quest for the Holy Grail did not happen…the Grail was sitting in the middle of a small church with a sign on it and a bright sourceless light above it.

According to the stories, that’s not what happened. (Speaking of stories, @jonbecker’s blog post is an excellent read.)

Time and data crashes in on each of us these days.

We too often struggle to sort through the signals and noise, at least I do, and so I understand the desire for something simple that tells me everything I need to know. But I never expect to find such a thing. In fact, my expectation is that if I want to know something and be able to act on it, I will have to do some work.

If I actually want to understand something, I know that I will likely have to work even harder.

So, this is pretty much the approach taken with research.schev.edu. You have to make an effort to know what you want and need, either before you get there or while on the site. Higher education is kind of a big business with a lot of complexity. This complexity derives not just from its size and variety, but also from its continual evolution. Some numbers, some measures are pretty simple – enrollment, and degrees conferred. Some of the buckets for these things may get a little complicated, but in our presentation of the data, actually in even our collection of the data, we have already simplified it through standardization.

Other measures, like graduation rates and measures of affordability, are more complex, if not to read, but to understand. The annual frequency of questions along the lines of “Don’t you have graduation rates for the four-year schools that are less than six years old?” has not noticeably reduced. As often as we explain the nature of a cohort measure, people still think we should have 2014 rate. Certainly, we could identify the reports based on the year the data are released, but some users will insist on being confused that the 2014 reports are about students that started at least six years prior, or three years for the two-year colleges. And in 2016 they would likely be confused again.

So we go for clarity and standards, even so, they are not such that they are instantly understood. Some things one just has to think about for a few moments. We also serve multiple constituencies with a varying levels of knowledge of higher ed and much different needs.

At the heart of it, this idea of a Holy Grail of measurement is the thinking behind the ratings system. Somehow one rating, or even a handful of different ratings, about an institution will tell one all they need to know. Or at least, all they need to know about an aspect of the institution related to the undergraduate experience. Except the educational aspect, because that is not measured consistently and reported systematically to USED.

PIRS though is only the natural evolution of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). The reporting and disclosure requirements that came out of the HEOA are huge. In some ways they have transformed institutional websites, in others they have demonstrated institutional ability to bury information. Of course, who can blame institutions much for the latter when probably very few students are interested in some of the requirements?

Which makes me wonder what the next version of the HEA will bring. If Chad Aldeman’s post is any indicator, we could see a major shift away from current requirements. More likely, in my estimation, we will see an attempt towards the requiring the publication of the perfect number* or a half-dozen perfect numbers and their changes over time.

In any event, whatever happens with the next version of the HEA, PIRS, or any other effort at the federal or state level, I don’t expect the search for the Grail of Measures to end anytime soon.

Faded jaded fallen cowboy star
Pawn shops itching for your old guitar
Where you’ve gone, it ain’t nobody knows
The sequins have fallen from your clothes

Once you heard the Opry crowd applaud
Now you’re hanging out at 4th and Broad
On the rain wet sidewalk, remembering the time
When coffee with a friend was still a dime

Chorus:
Everything’s been sold American
The early times are finished and the want ads are all read
Everyone’s been sold American
Been dreaming dreams in a rollaway bed

Writing down your memoirs on some window in the frost
Roulette eyes reflecting another morning lost
Hauled in by the metro for killing time and pain
With a singing brakeman screaming through your veins

You told me you were born so much higher than life
I saw the faded pictures of your children and your wife
Now they’re fumbling through your wallet & they’re trying to find your name
It’s almost like they raised the price of fame

Kinky Friedman – Sold American Lyrics

*The perfect number is 17.

Cults in Higher Ed

I was at a super-exclusive, informal meeting-type thing this week. I have to call it a meeting as there was no beer. There should have been beer.  At one point, I was explaining how cultish higher education is. Really.

And this phrase didn’t originate with me. More’s the pity.

Back in 2010, shortly after I returned to work following my adventure in neuroscience, there was a subcommittee meeting for Governor McDonnell’s higher education reform committee. As is often the case for these things (in Virginia, at least), it was standing room only for the audience. No matter how often we try to explain that the meeting host that there will be a crowd, there is huge interest in higher ed policy and we always need more seats for the audience than the normies think. As one legislative liaison pointed out, “It is a cult, it really is. We want to be here, even more than our institutions want us to be here. We need to be here.”

Part of the attraction is the desire to be involved and to avoid damage to one’s institution. It’s also fascinating. There is very little as as intrinsically interesting and mind-consuming as higher ed policy. It’s powerful stuff, too often polluted with overly simple explanations or overly complex solutions. And the people are fun to watch.

The only thing that is clearly more interesting and drives even greater passion is higher ed data & data policy. If you don’t believe me, show up at an IPEDS Technical Review Panel (TRP) and just observe. The level of passionate discourse and argument over a minor change in definition can go on for hours. It is almost obscene. Hell, just read tweets from any of the IR people or the higher ed researchers, or follow #HiEdData. These are people deeply invested in what they do and what they want to know from data. And what they can know. And what they do know.

This is what Secretary Duncan and President Obama did not know, or failed to understand, when #PIRS was proposed.

There are hundreds, more like thousands, of people who are experts in IPEDS data. They know what can and can’t be done with IPEDS data. And what shouldn’t be done. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” That is how people felt about the prospect of using IPEDS data for a ratings system. What could be done that would be substantively different from what now exists? As big as it is, it is an exceedingly limited collection of data that was never intended for developing rankings or ratings.

Just to make this post kind academic-like (undergraduate-style) let’s look at the definition of a cult:

cult
  1. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
    “the cult of St. Olaf”
  2. a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
    “a cult of personality surrounding the IPEDS directors”
    synonyms: obsession with,fixation on,mania for,passion for, idolization of,devotion to,worship of,veneration of

    “the cult of eternal youth in Hollywood”

The only thing really lack is any type of charismatic leader(s). Or charisma, really. (Again, observe a TRP). Kool-aid generally comes in the form of caffeinated beverages. Everything else is there.

Of course, there are more than just these two higher ed cults. We have the new cult of Big Data, and it seems full of evangelists promising the world and beyond. Of course, this cult transcends higher education.

While I like the idea of Big Data. I like the idea of Big Information/Bigger Wisdom even more. That’s the cult I am waiting for.

I hope they have cookies. Without almonds.

More than just buckets

To read much of the literature and coverage about various aspects of the “completion agenda,” I get the feeling that everyone pushing the agenda sees completion as simply filling the student bucket. You Three glasses of "sugar water and yeast"see, apparently to be successful college graduates, students just need to complete 120 credit hours for the bachelor degree (or half for the associate degree) . In order for them to do this efficiently, they need only to do so in proper order and always taking 15 credits a semester so they can do it on time.

That’s all. It’s quite simple.

Students are empty buckets to be filled. Nothing else needs to happen.

I don’t have any transparent buckets to make my point. However, in honor to the Chronicle’s coverage of student drinking on campus, I will use instead the “student as pint glass metaphor.” In the photograph I have three glasses of what is, at their most simple, three glasses of sugar-water, with yeast.

From left to right: a half a cup of white cane sugar, water, and yeast; 12 ozs of two-row Briesse malt, water, yeast, and hops; and finally, a delightful Black Sky PA (which also has alcohol).

What’s the difference? Clearly the first two are just raw ingredients dumped together. But they meet the standard of a certain amount of sugar, water, yeast, (and hops in the middle glass) to fill the empty container.The sugar water will someday result in fairly tasteless alcohol product. The second will result in a soggy mess absent any real brewing to extract the sugar from the hulls of the malt, with probably an unpleasant alcoholic taste sans brewing.

The third glass, the very black, very tasty IPA is the result of careful attention, requisite ingredients, and TIME. Time to ferment. Time to carbonate.

Time to be. Time to enhance. With care and monitoring throughout that time.

If the parallels aren’t clear, I’m not sure I can write enough words to help.

Education at any level is not a mechanistic, factory process. Even if filling the pint glasses according to a recipe was enough (and I doubt it ever will be), the glasses are able to get up and walk way, or change size, or be resistant.

Let’s try to remember that, okay?

Dashboards

I have owned a lot of cars. Too many, perhaps. Frequently I think back to that first car of mine: a bright yellow, 1977 Ford Pinto with a six cylinder engine. It was fast, light, and dangerous. Most of my cars and trucks since then have been improvements. (However, even with the Chevy 350 engine I put in a 74 Vega, it still needed more to be an improvement.)

Dashboards have changed a lot since 1977. There is almost no similarity between the dashboard of a ’77 Pinto and a 2015 Explorer. The basics are there – miles traveled, fuel and speed and a handful of idiot lights. A late-model car often has so much on the dash that one needs to spend a fair amount learning what’s there, what the options are, and what various icons and lights mean.

Last week a friend sent me this link The laws of shitty dashboards. There is a lot of truth here (however, more sensitive readers will need to work to overcome the overuse of the word shitty.) It has a lot of corollary to higher education dashboards as I’m pretty sure all higher ed dashboards are crap.

The dashboard on my Pinto told me how fast I was going and how much fuel I had. There were also a couple of small gauges for oil pressure and coolant temperature. If bad things happened to certain engine components, an idiot light would come on alerting the driver, “Hey, this is bad news!”

And the values changed on the gauges. Moment by moment.

And the information was useful. It was immediately actionable, if needed. Or I knew that immediate (at least very soon) action was needed.

In a new Explorer (or most other new cars), things aren’t much different. There is more information, such as average fuel economy, 4WD drive status (including amount of action directed to front and rear axles), navigational information, cell phone status, and sometimes much more. There are often choices in how to display the information.

In the end though, the key focus points are speed and fuel, followed closely by miles traveled (which is a function of speed, fuel, and time). These things still change moment by moment. The rest of the stuff is to help us feel in charge of the greater range of options available and ideally reduce the distractions faced by modern drivers and their toys.

The collection of dashboards I’ve seen for higher ed all seem to miss the point.

First, and this is my rule, “If the data only change once a year, it ain’t a dashboard cuz it ain’t got no dash.”

The speed of a properly functioning car can be changed immediately by application of accelerator or brake. Fuel can be added as needed (and stations are available).

Enrollment, for legitimate institutions at least, cannot be affected the same way. There are windows of time and action, and rules of process, as well as the influence of markets.

I sure as hell hope that degree output cannot be controlled like the speed of a car. If it can be, something is drastically wrong.

Law #6 from the article I linked to is applicable in a lot of ways.

Because it was useful in a PowerPoint doesn’t mean it’s useful on a dashboard.

Bingo! If a dashboard is somehow appropriate (and I am pretty sure a dashboard for state or national higher education issues never will be appropriate), there is probably little likelihood that if it is a good dashboard it will consist of charts from assorted PowerPoints.

There is an awful lot of literature on dashboards, decision support systems, executive information systems, scorecards, and the like. Before you build one, please RTFL – Read The Friendly Literature and always RFC – Read For Comprehension. There is already enough crap on the Web and enough bad decisions in higher ed. Let’s not add to it.

 

 

 

Liberal education-liberal arts are not in danger

Liberal education, the liberal arts, are the danger.

(In case you haven’t noticed, these posts originating on a late Friday night seem to get sillier.)

The wags and pundits calling for the elimination of the US Department of Education (USED)  on the grounds that “education” does not exist within the US Constitution are correct. Their ability to use Control-F and search for the word “education” is unimpeachable. But that is weak logic. Lots of things are not in the Constitution – highway(s), assault weapons, food, handguns, rifles, drugs,  cattle, dog(s), cat(s), abortion, hospital(s), identification, photo identification, trains, planes, and automobiles. The list goes on. I suspect there are few people who don’t have their own hobby-horse to ride about some federal law that they want, that they cherish, that is not actually mentioned in the Constitution.

But, so what?

This is what. Education is in the US Constitution. Specifically, the notion of a liberal education is in the Constitution. It is simply hidden.

As I wrote previously, the liberal arts, a liberal education, is for FREE people. It is just for people who are free, but for people who wish to be free, who strive to be free. Free from the shackles of ignorance, free from puppetry of the State. Free to make informed choices about their best interests.

Free to be free, to challenge government, to challenge the charismatic. Free to know when they are being led like lambs  to the slaughter.

(yeah, this is all over the top, but some of you just won’t pay attention otherwise)

The whole notion of the liberal arts, as a substantive part of a liberal education, is that these provide a basis of discernment to separate fact from fiction, lies from truth. There has always been far too much knowledge in the world to learn it all, but a solid liberal education provides the tools to study any part of it. The skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, literacy, numeracy, and reasoning, combined with knowledge across a range of disciplines is a threat to the power of any government, any tyrant.

Why else would China and other nations attempt to restrict Internet access, Twitter, or other tools for sharing information and knowledge?

Why else is espionage so important?

Why else deny Blacks access to the same education as Whites?

Because knowledge is power. The ability to act on that knowledge is more powerful still.

Education allows people to see, to know, that separate is never equal. Education allows people to work for change. And make it happen. Change through education has accomplished more absolute good than any weapon of death and destruction. Education that, if not grounded in liberal education, informed by liberal education, informed by the liberal arts. And shared through techniques and media developed, nurtured, expanded by the liberal arts.

The liberal arts are a weapon. I, we, are armed through the principles of a liberal education, based in the liberal arts and humanities. A right to which that shall not be infringed.

You can take my liberal arts degree when you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

(You can’t. You can have the paper any time. You can erase my records. The education still remains. I thought would explain, just in case someone has missed the point so far. I realize I may have been very overly subtle.)

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the poet an the painter far behind his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

–Chimes of Freedom, Bob Dylan

Defending the Liberal Arts

…don’t leave it to me.

I am the wrong person. I have a short temper and loud voice lacking gentleness, gentility, and any sense of gravitas. When someone questions the need for the liberal arts and their value, I have moved away from thinking about a defense to questioning their intelligence. After all, it is kind of like asking why we need the world to walk on.

Forget all the nonsense about life of the mind, and the exploration of life and history through the arts. It is all pointless. There is nothing more rewarding than working hard all day, with little reward, returning home to do chores, raise children, and collapse into bed. You just don’t need more than that. No song, let alone an entire musical or opera, will ever fix your broken heart. You just need to buy something. Chocolate. Beer. Something.

Buying heals all wounds.

Forget the fact that the act of barter, the most basic of “business” activities requires communication. As communication improves and barter becomes established trade, valuation becomes necessary. And then keeping track. So not only do we need math, we need writing.

But those are bad things. They are. Because writing and communication winds up leading to writing for the sake of writing, to record the stories, to create new stories. Workers don’t need that distraction. Workers need to focus. Workers need to work. Math for math’s sake leads to worse things. Digital things. Sudoku. HD TV, which then needs content and content providers.

From Wikipedia:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, “worthy of a free person”)[1] to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts, whilearithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.[2]

And so here we have it.

The liberal arts, a liberal education, is for FREE people.

Freedom is more than nothing left to lose. Freedom is being able to recognize and know that not all chains are of iron. Indeed, not all chains are even made of metal. The heaviest chains are those forged of ignorance.

To know enough to be able to keep learning is powerful.

To those who argue that a “liberal arts degree” is not enough to be employable, well, yes, for many people that is true. It is just as true that being an expert in computer programming does not mean one will necessarily do something of value for society, economic or otherwise. Or even useful. Just because one path is valuable, it does mean that is valuable for all. It does not need to be the degree that is problem, at some point, the degree-holder has to take responsibility for recognizing the needs and desires of those doing the hiring.

But that doesn’t mean they should not be free.

Certainly the liberal arts should be part of the curriculum. That should never be a question. General education is founded in the liberal arts and sciences. For those that wish to explore writing more deeply, or theater, art, philosophy, or any other topic, there is no harm. Higher education is as much about creating, expanding, maintaining, and sharing knowledge as it is about producing graduates. That role is critical and it is through undergraduate education that individuals with an interest in greater depth of study are found to continue that development of knowledge.

As I have said before, outside the technical and professional fields, major is irrelevant. A college major is an artifact on which the skills of critical inquiry, analysis, problem-solving, and communication are brought to bear to exercise and further develop those skills. This is powerful stuff. It simply may not be what the market needs (or thinks it needs). Individuals, students, graduates, must move past the idea that degree completion is a laying on of hands certifying their wonderfulness as a ready-to-hire contributor. The world has become more complex, more demanding. And thus more will be required.

The liberal arts don’t need defending.

A society/nation/world that does not value the liberal arts is what needs defending. And there is no defense.