01/21/2014 09:42 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Let's Consider Complex Realities That Students Face When Rating Colleges

President Obama's proposal to develop a college ratings system based on access, affordability, and outcomes has brought about much discussion these past few months. Many university leaders are understandably anxious about what the future holds, especially when the stakes are so high. Recognizing the vast diversity in the higher education sector, and the many universities seeking to educate first-generation, low-income and non-traditional students, the President has suggested that the ratings system would compare colleges with similar missions. This is a welcome acknowledgement that student performance is highly varied and cannot be understood out of context.

The Carnegie Classification, developed in 1970 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is the leading typology used to describe the diversity of American colleges and universities. While recognizing that institutions evolve over time, this framework delineates universities using a number of meaningful and objective data points that currently include the proportion of full-time, residential, and transfer students; the range of graduate programs; and the level of selectivity. Of the universe of more than 4,600 institutions in Carnegie's database, my institution, Roosevelt University, shares at least one of six categories with 817 institutions (including many unexpected peers), but not a single other university currently shares all six categories.

Carnegie does not, however, account for the complicated realities of our students' lives these days. I fully expect the educational results for the 2008 cohorts to be a mirror of the financial trauma they and our nation experienced and that many of our most vulnerable citizens still know all too well today. Prior to the financial crash of 2008, students receiving federal Pell grants represented about a third of Roosevelt's undergraduate population; Pell eligibility increased by 24 percent from 2008 to 2009 and by another nearly 11 percent in 2010. Subsequently, the figure has remained essentially flat: just under half of all undergraduates at the university are now Pell-eligible. Maybe more important though, is that Roosevelt students whose family had an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to their college costs of zero -- meaning that the formula set by law assessed that the family could not afford even one dollar toward the student's educational expenses -- increased by nearly 50 percent following the 2008 crash, so that today, just over 30 percent of Roosevelt's undergraduates have an EFC of zero.

Economic vulnerability is a critical element of student behavior but only one of the many influencers on the unique postsecondary pathway for them. The National Student Clearinghouse reports increased rates of mobility: one in three undergraduates transfers at least once and many transfer multiple times across multiple institutions. Consequently, the current federal graduation measure of six years for first-time, full-time freshmen (which represents about a quarter of Roosevelt students) fails to capture many student successes. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) recently introduced a new data reporting requirement that will add additional "outcome" measures for transfer and part-time students. Though the new reporting method does not distinguish between part-time and full-time students, the move is encouraging as it seeks broader inclusivity.

As we keep focused on our national college completion goals, we need to be keenly aware of the shifting patterns of the student experience which resembles less and less a traditional pathway. Nationally, a third of undergraduates are older than 25. Adult students are projected to have dramatic enrollment increases within the next decade: a 21 percent increase among students 25-34 years of age and a 16 percent increase in students 35 years of age and older. More than half of adults do not complete a bachelor's degree within six years, to say nothing of those who enter with no intention of completion but merely seeking to hone skills they need in their careers.

In the broader conversation about college success, we must also understand and address the troubling pipeline challenges facing our nation. Although we see trends of increasing high school graduation rates, significant numbers of graduates are not considered college ready. Of high school graduates from 2013 who took the ACT, 26 percent (and only 9 percent of first-generation students) met all four college-readiness benchmarks and 31 percent of all graduates who took the ACT (and 52 percent of first-generation students) met none of the benchmarks. We must develop smart solutions to ensure that high school graduates are ready for college-level work, but until we do, universities like Roosevelt -- as well as the federal government -- must continue to invest in and serve students for whom postsecondary education is the only path forward. These students cannot go back and stasis is as debilitating for them as it is for our country's future.

While there are many factors that influence the performance of an individual student, and it will be onerous to develop a meaningful system to account for all of them, we must set high expectations for student success and the success of the institutions that serve them. I hope that we will continue to refine the ways in which we evaluate both students and institutions; that we are careful not to make decisions based on a narrow range of data points; and that we will keep students and their learning outcomes at the forefront of the discussion. Choosing the right college is about finding the right fit and, as Carnegie has been capturing for over forty years, the strength of our postsecondary system is built on its diversity. It is an inherent strength of our nation and of the higher education sector that it reflects, and assessment of student and institutional performance to be meaningful in the lives of both, should be equally diverse.