Name a factoid about a college — best party school, most military-friendly, et cetera — and a magazine or website somewhere is probably ranking it.
The implication of those measures is usually some publicity.
But a new ratings system proposed by President Barack Obama would put more than a college's reputation at stake.
The nation's colleges would be pitted against one another on measures such as graduation rates, student debt and cost of attendance under the president's proposed system, aimed at putting a rating to the value colleges provide for their tuition dollars.
Obama said the plan is intended to hold down the cost of college and steer federal loans and grants toward those schools that rate the best. The schools that come out on top could eventually be rewarded with a bigger piece of the federal funding pie.
Since the president announced his plan last year, his proposal has left some higher education leaders in Nebraska and Iowa concerned that the ratings could have unintended effects by undervaluing the colleges most dedicated to access for all types of students and by forcing tighter admissions policies that could hurt the very students they want to help.
“We really struggle with the idea that it may change who you let in,” said Korinne Tande, vice chancellor and spokeswoman for the Nebraska State College System, which includes Wayne, Peru and Chadron State Colleges.
Under the president's proposal, a system would be in place for the 2015-16 school year giving families a government-backed rating system to consider when picking a college. Obama also plans to asks Congress to pass legislation that steers federal dollars toward the colleges that top the list by 2018. States also would be encouraged to fund their public colleges based on performance.
If the plan moves forward and legislation is passed, colleges that fare best under the yet-to-be-determined system would see more federally backed student loans and grants available for their students. Among the factors that could figure favorably into the ratings: higher average incomes after graduation, lower debt loads after graduation, higher overall graduation rates and more students who attend after receiving Pell Grants.
Though the plan has drawn much criticism from colleges, advocacy groups for education reform have praised its potential to drive change and give families much-needed information.
Ben Miller, senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan New America Foundation think tank, said the plan as proposed could be beneficial if it strikes the right balance in measuring colleges against their own peers and using metrics that matter.
“If you established a ratings system that reoriented the values around things like enrolling low-income students, graduating higher numbers of students and offering reasonable prices to those of modest means, I think you can reorient the way colleges pursue and define success,” Miller said.
It's important for colleges to share feedback and ideas now, Miller said, because the plan is still in flux. The White House has sought input from college leaders around the country as it formulates the details. Several college presidents from the region plan to attend a White House summit to discuss this and other initiatives to improve access to higher education.
Tande and others worry that most traditional measures don't factor in an institution's impact on individual students.
In Nebraska's state college system, for example, more than 2,000 students study to be teachers and hundreds more pursue careers in criminal justice. The state colleges don't have engineering or medical school programs, career paths with higher income potential, to balance out those generally lower-paying professions, she said. Still, students are getting jobs in careers of their choice.
At Wayne State College, for example, a survey found that 81 percent of 2012 graduates were working in their chosen field.
The inability of data to capture the successes of nontraditional students, including those who attend school part time or have families, is another frustration, Stan Carpenter, chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education.
That's why state colleges monitor their “success rate,” which is the pool of students who return each year, graduate or transfer out. Though the state colleges have a combined 46.6 percent graduation rate, their success rate is nearly 90 percent, Carpenter wrote.
Because the federal government counts a graduate as one who finishes a four-year degree within six years, graduation rates are skewed and fail to “recognize the realities of today's students,” Carpenter wrote.
The consequences of the ratings system could be felt by colleges and students who want to go to the college that best suits them, said Roberta Johnson, director of financial aid at Iowa State University in Ames.
The pool of federal money available for work-study positions and some federal grants has declined at Iowa State as the government has sought to spread it around to more colleges, Johnson said. As a consequence, it's become harder to offer students a package that doesn't include loans.
“If you create this rating system and it has a negative consequence, you're going to ask us to do even more with even less,” Johnson said.
Some of the proposed measures would likely favor the University of Nebraska's three predominantly undergraduate campuses — tuition generally below its peers and low loan default rates, said NU President J.B. Milliken. But he hopes the ratings system will provide something deeper than what parents and prospective students have available in current rankings.
He wonders how the government grade sheet will account for not just value but “value-added” services.
“If you take students who have only perfect ACTs, the chances they'll graduate in four years is pretty good,” Milliken said. “What are you doing with students who may not be performing at that level to add value so they'll be able to graduate and be successful?”
At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, about 42 percent of this year's freshman students are first-generation college students. More than 62 percent of undergraduates work a part-time job. A high number of veterans and part-time students are also factors that affect retention and graduation rates, said Dan Shipp, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UNO.
A student who takes semesters off may eventually graduate but wouldn't be included in federal graduation measures. And while Shipp is pleased with the overall idea of the ratings, he hopes they come up with a way to acknowledge institutions with different missions.
Community colleges, too, have questions about the ratings, given their focus on job training and accepting all high school graduates.
“Completion rates alone don't tell our story,” said Arthur Rich, Metropolitan Community College's vice president for campuses and student affairs.
Though the 2012 graduation rate at Omaha's Metro was the lowest of Nebraska public institutions, at 12.1 percent, the two-year college's percentage grows to 34.4 percent when transfer students are added in.
Rich said low tuition and access to education across the socioeconomic spectrum should boost the value assigned to institutions such as Metro. Measuring an outcome like graduation rates ignores the fact that students come to higher education for many different reasons and that some aren't aiming for a degree, he said.
“Success for one student may be getting a job after a handful of classes. For another student, that might be getting a degree,” he said.