Access, affordability, and success: How do America’s colleges fare, and what could it mean for the president’s ratings plan?

Tomasz Bidermann /

Article Highlights

  • .@AndrewPKelly and Awilda Rodriguez look at universities' current status in access, affordability, & success.

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  • .@AndrewPKelly and Awilda Rodriguez respond to @WhiteHouse 's #highered ratings plan.

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  • Very few #highered institutions are performing well in all 3 dimensions of the iron triangle.

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Click on the image for an interactive look at how America's universities rank according to access, affordability, and completion

Last fall, President Obama unveiled a plan to promote college affordability by changing the way the federal government distributes student financial aid. The proposal calls for a federal college ratings system that appraises colleges on measures of access, affordability, and student success. These ratings would then govern the allocation of federal student aid dollars, with schools that perform well receiving larger Pell Grants and more generous student loans. Schools that lag behind would get less.

The proposal is a dramatic departure from the government’s traditional approach to aid policy, under which loan and grant monies flow to any accredited college that enrolls students, so long as the institution passes minimal standards of financial health and student loan default rates. The new plan would challenge colleges to perform on all three sides of higher education’s “iron triangle”: access, affordability, and quality. According to a 2008 report by Public Agenda, most college presidents believe the three sides of the triangle are “linked in an unbreakable reciprocal relationship, such that any change in one will inevitably impact the others.”1 Through this lens, enrolling more disadvantaged students is a worthwhile goal, but it will likely lead to a drop in completion rates. Similarly, reducing costs will boost affordability and encourage access, but it could compromise the quality of the education provided. Meanwhile, spending more and raising tuition prices has historically helped colleges rise in the rankings and attract better students, but doing so limits access. Never before has a reform targeted all three sides of the iron triangle at the same time.

Since the ratings plan was announced, college leaders, advocacy groups, and researchers have asked whether these three dimensions can be measured accurately and whether existing databases could collect the necessary data. Accepted measures of “quality” are notoriously absent, and capturing affordability and access is not straightforward either. Others have voiced concerns about the consequences the ratings may have for particular groups of institutions like open-access and for-profit colleges, where completion rates are usually low.

But while it’s easy to hypothesize about which institutions and students would win and lose under the new ratings scheme, an informed debate requires an empirical look at how America’s colleges and universities currently fare on the three sides of the triangle. Is the iron triangle an iron law? Or are there colleges hitting high marks on all three sides? How many colleges might be in trouble under a new ratings scheme? And how are students distributed across the different levels of performance?

This policy brief provides such a snapshot. The precise measures and methods that will govern the ratings system are not yet known—indeed the Department of Education will convene a panel of experts this week to discuss these issues. However, using details from the White House’s description of the proposal and data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we can take a look at the pre-ratings status quo. Admittedly, existing measures of access, affordability, and student success are imperfect at best. But even so, they can help us better understand the implications of the proposed ratings scheme.

Access, affordability, and success: How do America's colleges fare and what could it mean for the president... by American Enterprise Institute


Nineteen four-year colleges in the sample with: graduation rates greater than 50 percent, a net price lower than $10,000 and more than 25 percent Pell enrollment.

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