Obama to rank colleges. So can you, with no wait. Here's where to look.

President Obama aims to have a new federal database, by 2015, that ranks colleges for the value they provide to students. But plenty of online sites that aim to do the same are up and running now.

Shawn Dowd/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle/AP
President Obama addresses a packed house at the University of Buffalo on his proposed education reforms to make college more affordable, on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. The president was on a bus tour of western New York and eastern Pennsylvania.

President Obama kicked off his college-affordability bus tour in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday by announcing that by the fall of 2015, the government would develop a new ratings system to compare the value of colleges. It would be based on factors such as affordability, graduation rates, and graduates’ earnings, Mr. Obama said, “so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.” 

For students currently in the throes of the college search, however, some tools are already out there to help do just that – and more.

College affordability has been a thorny problem for so long now that a plethora of efforts are under way – by new websites, networking sites such as LinkedIn, and college associations -- to make higher education data more accessible and to guide efforts by students and parents to make sense of it all.

Traditionally, “rankings systems ignored the costs of education,” says Bill Phelan, CEO of College Factual, a new site that offers value rankings and enables users to tailor their comparisons by weighting everything from average net price to student-faculty ratios, based on how important each factor is to them.

College Factual will even generate a tailored series of key questions parents or students should ask a college when comparing options. “We’re trying to be a force of change by empowering consumers to ask tough questions,” Mr. Phelan says.

People often look at student-faculty ratios, for instance, but they may not have thought to ask how many of the faculty are full-time and focused on teaching. College Factual provides such comparison points.

Parents have been spending a lot of time on the portion of the site that allows exploration of college majors – helping to identify which colleges graduate large numbers of students within a given area of interest, for instance, or finding “clusters of excellence” within a college, Phelan says.

That’s because choosing a college is just one part of forging an affordable path to a degree. When students change majors, it can cost them an additional year or more of school.

College Factual offers free comprehensive data comparisons, and will eventually expand from four-year colleges to two-year schools and graduate schools, as well. But the for-profit company will also begin offering a $49-a-year option with additional tools to help students determine their own preferences and temperament and identify schools and majors that might be a good fit. It's a way to “find your future faster for less than the price of a tank of gas,” Phelan says.

The professional networking site LinkedIn.com has decided it can offer something unique to prospective college students, as well: access to data about – and connections with -- thousands of global alumni who can help students envision a path to college and various careers they, perhaps, had never considered.

Earlier this month it launched University Pages, with tools making it easy to see how many alumni work in a given field or to search for alumni by city or company. The pages offer a “notable alumni” section, a place for the university to highlight aspects of campus life, a list of similar universities around the world, and a place to post questions and get answers from officials or alumni.

In mid-September, the minimum age for using LinkedIn in the United States will drop from 18 to 14, so that high school students can use the tools, which will also include key data points on factors such as cost.

“Today’s students are tomorrow’s professionals … and we want them to make more informed decisions about where they go to school, because it’s a huge investment,” says Crystal Braswell, spokeswoman for LinkedIn in Mountain View, Calif.

Once the new government rating system is developed, through discussions with stakeholders to be led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Obama proposes that Congress should grant more financial aid to students at the colleges that rank well – to encourage colleges to compete to offer the best value.

“It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future,” he said Thursday morning. 

Obama launched his tour at a place that would do well in such a competition: The University of Buffalo ranked 23rd on College Factual’s list of Best Nationwide Colleges For Your Money, which looked at 1,288 schools.

It will be difficult, however, for one system to adequately measure the diverse set of higher education institutions in the US. Work is under way to improve, for instance, how college graduation rates are calculated.

All six higher education associations in Washington, D.C., are collaborating on the Student Achievement Measure (SAM), a way to track more than just whether full-time students graduate from the same college at which they start (the current federal measure). SAM shows whether they transfer and earn a degree somewhere else, for instance, or attend part time and earn a degree over a longer period.

“It’s a more comprehensive and realistic picture of how students move through college,” says Christine Keller, who is overseeing SAM and is an associate vice president at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington.

Currently the federal government is not allowed to use student-level data that way, but some members of Congress are considering whether the law should allow it for tracking college graduation rates, while also protecting individual privacy, Ms. Keller says.

More than 200 institutions will be participating in SAM when the first data set goes up by November, and that number is expected to grow over time.

College associations have also created voluntary accountability systems in recent years to try to respond to the growing concerns about affordability. Students and parents can find valuable tools at sites such as www.collegeportraits.org, which compares public four-year institutions, and www.ucan-network.org, which compares private and nonprofit institutions.

The federal government also offers college scorecards and net price calculators at www.collegecost.ed.gov.

Among the president’s other proposals to boost affordability:

  • Use $1 billion to create a Race to the Top for Higher Education to encourage states to fund colleges on the basis of performance and to smooth transitions from high school to college and from two-year to four-year institutions.
  • Offer colleges a Pell Grant bonus on the basis of the number of low- and moderate-income students who graduate.
  • Require students to complete a certain percentage of classes before receiving continued federal aid.
  • Encourage innovations that can improve learning and cut costs, such as using online education and offering credit for mastery of content rather than seat-time. (See the Monitor story "A faster, cheaper way to go through college and emerge 'competent'.) This would be done by reducing regulatory barriers so schools could pilot new programs and through a proposed $260 million innovation fund.
  • Expand income-based repayment of student loans to all borrowers, allowing them to cap repayment at 10 percent of their monthly income, and make it easier for students to know about that option.
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