National Edition

Federal college ratings threat has schools on edge

Published: Wednesday, May 28 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, May 28 2014 12:51 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., in this Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, file photo. Obama is pitching a college ranking system that factors in student job success and earnings after college.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

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With tuition spiraling and educational values increasingly questioned, the Obama administration is moving to create a college ranking system that factors in student job success and earnings after college. Critics fear that such a system would penalize low-wage careers such as teaching and social work.

"Last summer the Obama administration directed ED to create a plan by the 2015-16 academic year to rate colleges based on measures of access, affordability and student outcomes, and eventually allocate federal aid based on those ratings," Mainstreet.com reported. "Obama's August bus tour of colleges in upstate New York and Pennsylvania gave a campaign-style fervor to the announcement."

“It’s like rating a blender,” Jamienne Studley, a deputy under-secretary at the Education Department, said to the college presidents after a meeting in the department’s Washington headquarters in November, according to the New York Times.

But some fear that the proposed "ratings blender" will create a hopeless mess of indigestible sludge.

"This may seem painfully obvious but, for the record: Blenders mix things together," writes Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post. "That’s it. They may do it on different speeds, but mixing things is what they do. Colleges do countless things for students, and people go to them for many different reasons, with many different goals. The administration’s focus seems to be on financial rewards after college, but that’s not why everybody goes."

“As with many things, the desire to solve a complicated problem in what feels like a simple way can capture people’s imagination,” Adam F. Falk, the president of Williams College in Massachusetts, told the New York Times, fearing that it would be “oversimplified to the point that it actually misleads.”

And Charles L. Flynn Jr., president of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, told the Times it “cannot be done well," adding that he finds the proposal "uncharacteristically clueless.”

The proposed federal ratings would challenge traditional ratings from U.S. News and World Report, in theory allowing parents and students to respond and allowing the market to determine winners and losers.

“I think you could probably model some scenario of a perfect economic market where families and students made terrifically well-informed choices and totally transformed the university by voting with their feet,” Jamienne Studley, a deputy under-secretary at the Education Department, said at Vanderbilt University last Tuesday, according to a report in Diverse Education.

“And if in that market weak schools fell by the wayside, maybe that would be the end of it,” Studley continued.

But now the Obama administration seems poised to take the next step, pushing to tie federal financial aid largesse to the bound-to-be-contentious ratings.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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