About a decade ago, then-President Barack Obama devised an ambitious plan to rate all American colleges, with the goal of publicly embarrassing bottom-placing institutions that burdened students with high debt loads and low earning potential.

Many college leaders soundly rejected the system and it never materialized. When the College Scorecard debuted a few years later, it didn’t include ratings. But flash forward to today, and Obama’s vice president, current President Joe Biden, seems to be pursuing a pared-down version of the same concept.

The U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday it will craft a list of “low-financial-value” programs, which would, similar to Obama’s shaming tactic, publicly call out institutions with poor outcomes. The department said over the next 30 days it will accept feedback on which factors it should use to construct this watchlist.

The announcement raised the hackles of for-profit college representatives, who say both the Obama and Biden administrations unfairly targeted those institutions and fear the new index will be much the same.

Further, the idea of quantifying a college’s benefits solely in economic terms has drawn criticism within the higher education sector, though much of the country, including pundits and policymakers, are hyper-focused on institutions’ returns on investment.

What’s in a list?

The first mention of a watchlist came tucked away in the last paragraph of the White House’s August announcement that it would try to cancel mass amounts of student loan debt for those earning up to $125,000.

Although the debt forgiveness initiative has since stalled in court, at the time it overshadowed news of a list. The administration said then the list aimed to help students “steer clear of programs with poor outcomes.”

Education Department officials shared more about the idea Tuesday, requesting public feedback on it. They want to know what data points and metrics could most help students understand the financial repercussions of enrolling in a particular college, and whether public investments in certain programs are worthwhile. 

The department also wants to learn the factors that would help assess programs’ nonfinancial value.

Colleges that fail in these measures would send in a performance plan detailing how they would remedy those issues, but the Education Department lacks authority to then penalize those institutions, said Clare McCann, a former senior policy adviser for the Biden Education Department who now works as a higher education fellow at philanthropy Arnold Ventures.

“This is a much softer form of accountability,” McCann said. “It’s an important first step, and really necessary, but certainly not the last step in holding institutions accountable.”

Key metrics

The metrics the Education Department will choose to incorporate into the list will likely come under debate. 

Developing a rigidly defined, foolproof return on investment “would be hard to measure and difficult to enforce,” William Tierney, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and founding director of its Pullias Center for Higher Education, said in an email.

He suggested the Education Department home in on debt and income levels, however. Focus on these twin metrics would “enormously” affect for-profit institutions, he said. More often, they are the colleges that have encouraged students to take out loans for junk programs, leaving them with significant debt, Tierney said.

The Biden administration has tried to clamp down on proprietary institutions, such as by making owners of some private colleges financially liable if they shut down without warning or defraud their students. Prominent for-profit chains have shuttered suddenly before, like ITT Technical Institute in 2016, leaving students in the lurch.

But Jason Altmire, president and chief executive of Career Education Colleges and Universities, or CECU, — for-profit colleges’ lobbying group — in a phone interview Tuesday accused the Obama and Biden administrations of deliberately painting for-profits in an unflattering light.

He said Education Department officials have not held up for-profits’ successes, such as high job placement rates.

The job-placement rates that for-profit colleges promote have been a point of contention over the years amid disagreements over whether students should have to work in the same fields they studied to bolster their alma maters’ metrics.

Altmire stressed CECU backs bolstered transparency measures. And he said he’s pleased the Education Department has given the public the opportunity to respond to a potential list.

But he said he fears the list will exclusively feature for-profit colleges.

“We just want it to be a fair measure, and have all colleges abide by the same metrics, and held accountable to the same measures,” Altmire said.

A department official said the list will include programs at all types of institutions and would not be sector- or level-specific. The official also emphasized the department asked about non-financial measurements in its request for feedback.

Who else is concerned?

Worries over the list poured in from more than for-profit colleges, too.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, which represents liberal arts institutions.

She said in a phone call Tuesday that AAC&U shares concerns about students graduating with high debt and a difficult path to high-paying jobs, “so the accountability goals are laudable.”

But viewing the benefits of some higher ed institutions solely through a financial lens presents problems, Pasquerella said.

Biden has fixated on colleges with high prices that don’t deliver corresponding financial value, she said. She said she worries that this type of rhetoric may harm liberal arts colleges — she pointed to the New College of Florida and Hampshire College, in Massachusetts — that may post a negative return on financial investment, but offer some of the best liberal arts education in the country.

Research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has actually shown liberal arts colleges tend to offer a higher return than other types of institutions — though usually far down the road.

AAC&U wants a more nuanced presentation of these issues, and action like the list may “contribute to the narrative that reduces higher education to employability,” Pasquerella said.

Calls for more transparency in college graduates’ employment prospects, earnings and completion rates have come from many corners of higher ed over the years. 

Obama’s comprehensive rankings may not have materialized, but his administration did put forth the College Scorecard in 2015. This public-facing database presents numerous metrics about colleges’ costs and graduates’ earnings and debt.The federal government has expanded it over the years, such as by adding some program-level data in 2019. 

The Scorecard merely shows a snapshot of students’ potential returns on investment, though — it may prod institutions with poor outcomes to try to fix them but can’t formally punish those that don’t. And it’s been subject to similiar criticism that a sole focus on finances is reductive for higher ed, Pasquerella said.

Thus, consumer advocates and think tanks have pressed for greater accountability measures, like an Obama-era gainful employment regulation that came down on colleges that saddle students with ruinous debt and few employment options. 

The Trump administration repealed that regulation, but the Education Department again intends to issue a similar proposal in April.

As part of the accountability push, the Education Department could beef up the College Scorecard and get more of families’ eyes on it, said McCann, of Arnold Ventures. 

But the department doesn’t have much power to unilaterally tie federal funding to what it’s doing, she said. 

“The reality is that for systemic changes, we need Congress,” McCann said. 

That’s unlikely, given split party control in the Senate and House, the latter of which has struggled in recent days to elect a speaker or even adjourn.