Nearly two years ago, President Obama proposed a federal system to rate the nation's colleges and universities, one that would provide families with an objective and unified tool to compare schools and for taxpayers to determine whether the massive investments in scholarships and other government spending on higher education are worthwhile.
The idea, however, was met with protests and concerns from college leaders who contended that it was misconceived and could unfairly pit schools against each other.
After repeated delays and many consultations with skeptical college leaders, the ratings system was recently scrapped.
White House officials say that pushback from the higher education industry and congressional Republicans did not lead to the retreat. Instead, they say they could not develop a ratings system that worked well enough to help high school seniors, parents and counselors.
Ted Mitchell, U.S. undersecretary of education, said attempts to bundle many measurements of colleges' performance into a single score backfired, making the effort "less transparent."
The department, he said, wanted to avoid "a black box that would be hard for consumers to penetrate and understand and that actually would not be an advance on the state of the art."
Plus, the supposed simplicity of a single score "would belie a lot of complexity students and families need to understand. And it would mask some very big differences among institutions," said Mitchell, past president of Occidental College and of the state Board of Education.
Last year, the administration had suggested that it would assign colleges to broad categories such as high performing, average or low, with some recognition for schools that enroll large numbers of low-income students.
Now, the education department is creating a new website that will enable families to research and compare the records and outcomes of colleges and make their own judgments without being offered a composite score.
Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland-based organization that promotes broader education opportunities and reduced student debt, said she hopes the new tool "provides consumers better information to help make college decisions and focuses colleges' attention on what they can do to improve affordability and outcomes."
Asher, who opposed a single score rating, said the new website should include detailed data about average debt load after graduation and the graduation rates of low-income Pell Grant recipients, items previous proposals lacked.
Early on, one of the arguments against a single scoring system was that it might unfairly pit, say, a Cal State Dominguez Hills, where many students start in remedial classes, against an Ivy League school such as Princeton, or an engineering school that produces highly-paid techies against one that mainly trains social workers and police officers.
Administration officials had promised that its system would account for those differences and avoid unbalanced competition. In addition, some opponents predicted the ratings would have been faulty since important data are not easily available, such as the graduation rates of transfer students.
Opposition from colleges and higher education groups probably was a secondary consideration in the decision to abandon the ratings plan, said Terry W. Hartle, the American Council on Education's senior vice president for government and public affairs. Despite so much work on the project, the administration "simply concluded there wasn't a way to do this well or even reasonably well. So it was better not to attempt it," he said.
Hartle, whose group also opposed the idea, said that White House officials should be applauded for realizing that a ratings system could not be implemented "without misleading students, harming institutions, creating perverse incentives or embarrassing themselves."
Michael V. Reilly, executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said many colleges were surprised yet relieved that the federal ratings are off the table. He surmised that the White House could not find a formula that was both easy to comprehend and did not penalize schools that serve low-income students.
In addition, with the clock ticking on the Obama presidency, officials may have wanted to avoid a battle in Congress when other education issues are more pressing, such as financial aid and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. "I think the administration was running out of time on this," Reilly said.
The plan attracted opposition from a past member of the Obama administration: UC President Janet Napolitano, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. In December 2013, she said she was "deeply skeptical" about a ratings system that would contain many exceptions.
Last week, she praised White House efforts to improve higher education and, while noting her opinion about the ratings, said in a statement that UC will work with federal officials to provide students and families "key data they can use to inform their decisions."