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New Federal College Ratings Will Consider Aid, Total Cost, Employment

Today the Education Department released long-awaited details on a plan to hold colleges accountable for their performance on several key indicators, and officials said they'll be seeking public comment on the proposals through February.

"As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and ensure that all students graduate with a quality education of real value," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The White House previously announced that the plan would tie federal financial aid to colleges' performance as judged by these ratings. This step, which requires Congressional approval, is not set to occur until 2018.

Here are some of the key details announced today:

First, the administration wants to know how well colleges are doing to expand opportunity for the disadvantaged. They're looking at metrics like the percentage of students who get Pell Grants, which are income-based. And the percentage of first-generation students.

Second, the framework includes costs. Not just the "sticker price," but the net price charged to most students after financial aid and scholarships. Is a college truly need-blind? How much do working-class and middle-class students pay?

Andfinally, it looks at outcomes. The most-used federal measure of graduation rates counts first-time, full-time students only. But, by 2017, the Education Department is scheduled to publicly release graduation rates for part-time and transfer students, who are more and more numerous these days.

One of the most controversial ideas that's been debated is some kind of jobs measure. This framework includes two different examples: What percentage of students have a job, say, six months after graduation? And what are their median earnings long-term?

The administration says it will collect and present this labor market information in a way that is "sensitive to educational, career, work force and other variables." In other words, a divinity school won't be dinged because its graduates are pastors with low salaries.

Two other possibilities on the list for outcomes are grad-school attendance rates, and loan-repayment rates. That last metric has already been put into place as the "gainful employment rule" for for-profit colleges, which are suing to stop it.

The one measure that's not on the list is the one that's the centerpiece of accountability for the K-12 system: a measure of student learning. There isn't one single good one, the Education Department's plan explained:

"[L]earning outcomes ... are central to understanding the value of an education but vary widely across programs and institutions and are communicated in many different ways."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.