Rate colleges' quality by measuring transparency, SPLC tells U.S. Department of Education


Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 
703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

A proposed federal index rating colleges according to quality and affordability should include a measurement of how readily they share information with the public, the Student Press Law Center told the Obama administration in comments filed with the U.S. Department of Education.

In a statement filed January 31 with the DOE’s National Center for Education Statistics, the SPLC urged the Department to rate colleges on the basis of turnaround time in fulfilling requests for public records, compliance with federal disclosure laws, and the openness of their presidential search processes.

“Refusal to afford the public access to information is the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ that should alert an educated consumer to enroll elsewhere,” the SPLC said in comments filed in response to the Department’s request for information.

The Obama administration announced in August 2013 that it would be compiling and releasing ratings of colleges starting in 2015 to hold them accountable for providing a good value for students’ dollar. The DOE was put in charge of developing the measurements that will go into the administration’s rating system.

SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said, “If the administration is serious about equipping families with the information they need to make an informed choice of colleges, then the openness or secrecy of the institution must be front-and-center. Consumers can’t fairly evaluate a college that drags its feet on complying with state and federal disclosure laws.”

“A college that cheats its students out of the information they need to be meaningfully involved in school governance is no ‘bargain,’” LoMonte said. “If the federal rankings focus exclusively on cost and graduation rates, they’re missing the bigger picture. The college experience isn’t defined solely by inputs and outputs. We can’t measure a college’s honesty, but we can measure which colleges are forthcoming with information and which are not, and that provides a reasonable proxy for the integrity of a college’s management.”

In the comments, the SPLC pointed out that colleges resistant to public disclosure invariably are concealing greater management problems, noting the example of the University of Illinois, where then-President Michael Hogan’s administration collapsed under the weight of scandal in 2012 just months after the revelation that the university routinely ignored directives from the state’s attorney general to release public records.

“Since the Department recognizes that reliance on a single data point is insufficient to making a fully informed college choice, the Department’s first and most essential step should be measuring institutions’ compliance with existing state and federal laws that require with existing disclosure statutes, then consumers will have access to an array of data — and the ability to request and obtain additional data — addressing the elements of the college experience that are most meaningful to them,” the SPLC told the DOE.

Specifically, the SPLC said colleges should be ranked on their turnaround time and backlog in fulfilling requests for public records, just as the U.S. Justice Department evaluates federal agencies for their compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Additionally, the SPLC said the ratings should include a measurement of how much input the campus community is afforded in the choice of a college president, and how well the institution complies with federal transparency laws such as the Clery Act, which requires the release of yearly crime statistics that increasingly are being proven unreliable and at times outright fraudulent.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been an advocate for transparency in colleges and schools, training student watchdogs to use disclosure laws to hold educational institutions publicly accountable. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website.