Government contract discloses possible federal college rating system details

May allow institutions to challenge, annotate data

An agreement between the Department of Education and a government contractor reveals new details and deadlines about the upcoming college ratings system—including a planned Sept. 1 launch for the "version 1.0" of the website, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Inside Higher Ed obtained a copy of the agreement signed Dec. 31, 2014 between the department and nonprofit research company Research Triangle Institute (RTI).

RTI holds a total of $81.4 million in government contract data projects, approximately $4 million of which are for the Obama administration's college ratings systems. So far, RTI has received $1.8 million of that to analyze college data, build a ratings website, and test various ratings models.

That is representative of the "bulk of the money" spent on ratings, an unidentified department official told Inside Higher Ed, adding that staff time and events to solicit public feedback also cost money.

Federal records show the contract was modified last week, but it is not clear whether that change affected the college ratings section of the document.

The contract reveals several new details about the ratings system.

Possible features

The document describes website features that department officials asked RTI to develop. It must be mobile-friendly, they said, and searches must be shareable via email and social media.

However, the design requirements do not hint at whether or not colleges will receive individual ratings for multiple measurements or just one aggregate score.

The department also asked RTI to build in ways to measure student and family engagement with the website, as well as methods to organize complaints about the ratings system once it launches.

Allowing colleges to challenge data

The contract also includes optional requests of RTI, such as allowing colleges to challenge data or creating a technical review panel. Inside Higher Ed reports it is not certain which of these optional tasks RTI was charged with completing.

One proposal, for example, suggests giving institutions the opportunity to verify the data, methodology, and student cohorts used to calculate their schools' metrics.

Another provision would allow colleges and universities to write a statement to accompany its score on the website, "to provide context and explain how their unique circumstances may impact the ratings displayed."

It is unclear whether the department still plans to launch the website by the start of the 2015-2016 school year (Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, 4/20).

The takeaway: A government contract obtained by Inside Higher Ed reveals new details about the Obama administration's college ratings system.

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