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Obama administration outlines its new college rating system

President Obama's education department on Friday released an outline of its plans for rating colleges based on their accessibility, affordability and the success of their students.

The planned ratings system, which the department aims to roll out ahead of the 2015-2016 school year, is part of a set of initiatives Mr. Obama announced last year to help make college more affordable and accessible to more students.

"What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck," the president explained at the time.

Mr. Obama eventually wants to work with Congress to tie the $150 billion in federal funding that goes to colleges every year to the new rating system.

"Colleges that keep their tuition go down and provide a quality education are going to see their funding go up," the president said last year. "It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not providing good results."

While the education department has yet to release its first actual draft proposal of a ratings system, it explained on Friday what metrics and parameters it may use.

In its first version of the ratings system, the department will focus on two-year institutions that award associate degrees and four-year institutions that award baccalaureate degrees, which will be placed in separate categories. Graduate-degree only and non-degree granting institutions won't be included at this point.

The administration wants to avoid ranking colleges, so it is considering rating schools as either high-performing, low-performing, or somewhere in the middle. The education department is still working on the best ways to determine what constitutes "low-performing" or "high-performing," as well as ways to recognize improved performance over time.

As for its proposed metrics, the education department noted that the percentage of students receiving Pell grants "is the most common measure of access and the most readily available."

The department may also consider measuring family income quintiles, to determine an institution's enrollment of low- to moderate-income students.

To measure accessibility, the government may consider the percentage of students who did not have a parent who attended college.

The average net price of an institution could provide an obvious measure of a school's affordability, while the department notes that net price by quintile "may offer a more accurate measure of the actual price paid by students of various family income backgrounds than average net price."

The department may also evaluate completion rates, transfer rates, and labor market success. However, questions remain about these proposed metrics. For instance, when it comes to labor market success, the department points out that "a better or good job can mean different things to different people. Are they able to secure work in their chosen field or location? Have they increased their earnings potential?"

The education department has spent the past year soliciting feedback on its plans and will continue to collect comments from the public until February 17. People are invited to comment through the comment section of the department's higher education blog or via email to collegefeedback@ed.gov.