Among the many recommendations to the White House for how it could have better handled the rollout of its HealthCare.gov website was a public declaration by eight Democratic senators suggesting that established entities and companies with relevant expertise should have played a larger role in the process. In other words, the federal government shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel when much of what it’s trying to accomplish already exists. Still, this is a mistake many fear will be repeated as the administration introduces its college ratings plan.
While consensus about the actual necessity of a federal college ratings system is unlikely, the ratings could still become a reality. The recent rollout of the HealthCare.gov website clearly showed that our government is strongest when it guides policy development and funds its implementation, as opposed to building the technology or software to execute it. Instead of starting from scratch, the administration should work together with the educational system to leverage existing resources and build a usable platform before mistakes of the recent past are repeated.
One particular concern is that the data the administration proposes to gather and calculate college rankings — costs, graduation rates, loan default rates, median borrowing and employment — already exist and are readily accessible. Although there are indications that the Department of Education is open to suggestions on methodology, spending public money to develop and implement a platform for data collection, review and evaluation does not make sense. A better approach to this effort would be to recognize existing companies in the private sector that already have access to this data and have the people and infrastructure to contribute to this initiative.
Not only would our government save time and resources by developing public-private partnerships in this endeavor, but the development of this ranking system has the potential to bring together a splintered education technology system. Imagine what can be accomplished if the many private companies, funding organizations and not-for-profit outfits who have already invested tens of millions of dollars to develop these systems could work together, with the possibility of adding new, proprietary data sources to the mix.
There are companies like ours that already possess the data to build out an effective ratings system and have a desire to work with others who wish to see the administration’s concept flourish. Institutions already partner with private sector entities that mine available data and deliver predictive analytics so that truly data-driven, strategic decisions can be made on issues ranging from student retention to effective operations. There is no need for the government to invest scarce resources to repeat the work that has been done by others for years.
This is the approach that should be taken — a bottom-up collaboration leveraging existing expertise and data, as opposed to a top-down reinvention of the wheel. Most technologists believe the biggest opportunity for the use of data is crowdsourced gathering from numerous, separate sources with sophisticated analytical options, yet there is no indication that the administration has considered this approach to its plan.
Higher education is at a critical junction. There is a lot at risk and a lot to gain in the establishment of this ratings system. A more collaborative process will generate new ideas that could transform the administration’s mandate into something that the educational community can get excited about, instead of one viewed with concern or disdain. The administration should implement a thought-provoking process where public-private partnerships fuel innovative thinking. Together, we can increase the scope of what we can offer families and students, while also ensuring a quality platform that delivers meaningful college rankings.
Eric Reich is the senior vice president at Higher One and heads Campus Labs, Higher One’s education services division. He grew Campus Labs from its inception to its current place as the leading assessment technology platform in higher education.