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College and university presidents concerned over President Obama's proposed rating system

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

The Obama administration's proposed plan to make a college education cheaper has received harsh criticism, but some think tanks believe it can be saved once the administration identifies the principal problem and makes corrections.

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A majority of college presidents around the U.S. have panned the new proposal by the Obama administration to create a college rating system, although some educational think tanks believe the plan can be fixed.

A poll of 675 university and college presidents conducted by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed found 59 percent of presidents to be skeptical of the administration’s plan and its performance metrics.

The ratings system was proposed by the Department of Education last August and followed up with a series of forums at different campuses, where college administrators and student leaders could give their feedback.

The ratings system, which the administration wants to be operational by the 2015-2016 academic year, would grade schools' performance metrics — including graduation rates, post-graduation earnings and average student debt. The rating system builds upon the College Scorecard announced in the 2013 State of the Union address and implemented early last year by the Education Department.

According the Obama administration, college performance metrics would be used to tie federal aid to college and student performance, to give consumers clear information about the schools, and to ensure that student debt remains affordable.

Along these lines, the Education Department sponsored a "Datapalooza" on Jan. 15 with the goal of bringing educational and technology leaders to examine how big data could impact education and help bring down college costs. At the event, the department also marked the progress of its college ratings system.

Skeptical outlook

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, an organization of 1,300 institutions of higher learning, opposes the rating system. "They want to motivate colleges and universities to do a better job of serving low-income students and enabling the middle-class student to actually get through college,” said Debra Humphreys, the vice president for policy and public engagement. But the association doesn’t believe the system will work as proposed.

To college presidents, the administration’s proposed rating system will rate good colleges poorly.

“The metrics that they’re proposing to rate colleges by are going to be very challenging to gather on institutions in a way that’s fair and relevant to their mission,” Humphreys said. “A lot of college leaders are very concerned that institutions that are designed to serve low-income students or less well-prepared students won’t look good on their ratings in terms of graduation rates and default rates.”

The proposal appears to be aimed at motivating universities to serve low-income students and help more students finish college. However, if the rating system is done incorrectly, it could end up doing just the opposite.

“I think a lot of people are quite skeptical that just publishing ratings of metrics might be more misleading than revelatory, and could do more harm than good,” Humphreys said.

The performance metric that many at AAC&U are most concerned about is post-graduation salaries.

Colleges that specialize in graduating students in lower-paying careers — such as elementary education, social work and theater — could expect a lower rating than colleges that tend to graduate students in higher-paying jobs such as engineering, medicine and business.

From this point of view, measuring post-graduation salaries has little to do with the value of the education that students receive, particularly if a student knowingly pursues a lower-paying career.

Complex nuts and bolts

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