President Aoun cautions about federal rating system, proposes innovative metrics to measure outcomes

Responding to the U.S. Department of Education’s draft framework for a new college ratings system, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun outlined in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan a series of metrics for universities to help families have access to more reliable and transparent information for measuring students’ career and personal success.

A leading voice on federal and global higher education issues, President Aoun argued that as opposed to a solely government-driven ratings system, institutions—on their own—should provide families with information about student outcomes. He proposed moving beyond input measures and toward a continuum of value-added indicators measuring throughputs and outputs.

These value-added indicators, which Aoun called “The Northeastern Value Continuum,” would factor in not only affordability but also how likely students are to complete their degree on time and secure meaningful employment or advance to further their education.

The Obama administration’s proposed Postsecondary Institution Rating System, which could be in place by the 2015–16 academic year, aims to assess higher education institutions’ value, and future federal aid could be tied to how colleges and universities perform in the rankings. The U.S. Department of Education recently released its draft framework for the ratings system and asked for public feedback.

In his letter, Aoun wrote that he shares the concerns of other higher education institutions about the ratings system, particularly with its limitations and reliability of publicly available data and that the system is likely to be seen as a government-sanctioned effort to designate winners and losers among colleges and universities. However, he stressed the need in higher education to enhance transparency, improve access to reliable information, and measure student outcomes.

“The higher education community’s responsibility to prepare students for a life of fulfillment is a sacred trust,” Aoun wrote. “Parents and families have an absolute right to know the return they can expect from their education investment.”

Paramount to successfully reaching these goals, he said, is for institutions themselves to move toward value-added indicators that measure throughputs and outcomes, and to make that information readily available to families. Aoun wrote that research has shown the value of experiential education as well as other high-impact learning practices such as global study, undergraduate research, service learning, and community engagement. These all correlate to higher student outcomes and should be tracked, he wrote.

For its part, Northeastern measures these metrics and has shown that the university’s graduates have some of the strongest employment-related higher education outcomes in the country. Ninety percent of Northeastern graduates are employed or enrolled in graduate school within nine months of graduation; 85 percent are employed in a field related to their undergraduate major; and 50 percent receive a job offer from a prior co-op employer.

Central to Northeastern’s education model is experiential learning—particularly the university’s signature co-op program that boasts a network of 3,000 employers. More than 9,800 students participated in co-op in 2013-2014 all over the world. In fact, Northeastern offers co-op and other experiential learning programs in 128 countries.

Secondly, Aoun proposed providing families with a clearer snapshot of graduates’ actual employment outcomes by focusing less on salary data and more on employment rates and alumni feedback on whether their institutions prepared them well for career and personal success. He also urged that affordability metrics make particular note of substantial investments institutions make in student financial aid to assist low- and middle-income families.

“If we are to help students and families truly distinguish value and reduce costs, institutions must provide students with information not only about whether they can afford to attend a given institution, but also how likely they are to complete their degree on time, secure meaningful postgraduate employment or related experience, or advance to further education.”

Northeastern provided a record $221.4 million in institutional grants—not loans—for the 2014-15 academic year, which allowed the university to meet full need for its entering class. Over the past five years, financial aid at the university has increased at double the rate of tuition.

Aoun underscored his commitment to continuing to partner with the U.S. Department of Education on their shared goals of strengthening the federal investment in student aid, improving opportunity, and measuring student outcomes.

This commitment dovetails with Aoun’s leadership on issues critical to higher education. He recently completed a one-year term as board chair of the American Council on Education, and currently serves on an academic advisory council that examines how universities can contribute to America’s national security efforts. He has also led efforts to coordinate with other college presidents to preserve federal financial aid funding for students.

His letter to Duncan comes not only as the Obama administration preps its new university ratings tool but also as Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

“While it would be convenient for the higher education sector to dismiss measuring outcomes as unworkable, we cannot afford to ignore students and families who are demanding transparency and clear information about value,” Aoun wrote. “They need to make informed choices, and institutions must assist them.”