TIME Education

Obama Thinks He Can Rate Colleges. Can You Do Better? (Interactive)

See how colleges stack up based on what you think is most important in a school

Last year, the Obama Administration announced a plan to assess schools on how well they serve their students, based on metrics like graduation rate, tuition, and the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants, the federally funded scholarships for low-income families. For a system that has yet to be put in place, the White House’s college ratings have created a great deal of panic.

To see how those ratings might play out, TIME gathered data for 2,500 college and universities and ranked them according to the proposed metrics. But we’ve left it to you to adjust how important each of those metrics should be. Adjust the sliders, and watch the the schools reshuffle.

As Haley Sweetland Edwards notes in the most recent issue of TIME, many college presidents are convinced that the ratings proposed by the Obama administration would fail to capture the value of their schools. The White House insists that far too many sub-par schools are cashing in on federal student loans and leaving their students in the lurch.

The White House is proposing to take a bunch a date of data about schools and determine a rank for each. This would produce an algorithm that functions in many ways like Google’s ranking of Web pages. In the case of search engines, the exact nature of this algorithm is a secret. The White House’s algorithm will presumably not be secret, meaning it will be quite easy for schools to game the system.

That sounds like a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be. When algorithms work well, they reward good behavior. In the same way that the Google algorithm rewards sites that offer clear descriptions of the content and coherent navigation, a good college ranking algorithm could inspire schools to offer better grants to those who can’t afford the tuition and provide help for those at risk of dropping out. A poorly designed algorithm, meanwhile, could incentivize them to shut out students who have lower statistical odds of graduating.

The interactive at the top of this article presents a simplified rating system based on three qualities the White House has mentioned: Graduation rate, accessibility and affordability. For accessibility, the interactive uses the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants. For affordability, we’ve used the net cost paid by families who makes less than $110,000 a year and receive some form of aid.

By rewarding both accessibility and graduation rate, this system corners one of the trickiest problems facing schools looking to climb the rankings: Students from low-income backgrounds are statistically less likely to graduate. The most expedient way for a school to boost its graduate rate would be not to admit students in this cohort. Doing so, however, would theoretically hurt the school in the accessibility category more than it boosted the school in the graduation category, resulting in a drop in the ratings. At least, this is how a good White House algorithm would work. Fine-tuning the formula to work as advertised would require a sophisticated statistical analysis of the data. In the meantime, you can drag the sliders around to see which schools would rise to the top given existing numbers.

Methodology

All data comes from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Each school is evaluated according to its six-year graduation rate, the percentage of full-time, first-time undergraduates receiving Pell grants and the net cost for students receiving any form of aid whose families make less than $110,000 a year. That figure is calculated by TIME as the weighted average net cost for students in each of the Department of Education’s reported income brackets. Where that data is not available, overall net cost (tuition and fees minus grants and scholarships) is used.

These three data points are standardized, so that each school’s score is the number of standard deviations above or below the mean. The app then adjusts these values according to the position of the sliders, sums the square roots of those values, and takes the square of the sum. (A detailed discussion of that method is available here.)

The classifications of schools come from the Carnegie classification system. Schools without a Carnegie class are not included.

Update, May 6, 2014: Several more schools were added to the dataset.

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