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

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

Metrics alone aren’t the only problem. Andrew Gillen of Education Sector at American Institutes for Research believes the proposed ratings system cannot accomplish both of its goals: holding colleges and universities accountable and helping prospective students choose a school.

According to Gillen, head researcher at the independent think tank, holding colleges accountable for the federal aid and Pell grants received would be a complicated task and would therefore make a complicated ratings system.

"Accountability is inherently a very complex, nuts-and-bolts task," Gillen said.

As 1 percent, or $33.6 billion, of the federal budget goes to these support programs, Gillen believes there’s incentive for making a ratings system that holds colleges accountable for the federal aid they receive. A ratings system could help adjust the financial aid allocation accordingly, depending on which schools are meetings their goals.

However, a potentially complicated ratings system makes for a poor guide to help students pick a college, Gillen said. To accomplish that goal, the administration would have to create a ratings system that is simple, informative and easy to understand.

“I don’t see one rating system accomplishing both of those goals,” said Gillen.

Fix or scrap?

Even though many college presidents want to scrap the plan altogether, both Humphreys and Gillen believe the plan can be reformed.

Education Sector at American Institutes for Research, which officially hasn’t approved or opposed the proposal, plans on releasing a first draft of a similar ratings system in early 2014.

While Gillen couldn’t reveal specifics of the draft proposal, he did say that the plan will likely suggest that the administration move away from trying to accomplish two different goals.

“I’m going to be suggesting that the administration focus more on tying the financial aid programs to this particular ratings system,” Gillen said.

Humphreys also believes that the administration could help higher education by holding schools more accountable for the performance of the students that receive Pell grants.

Fundamental change

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the college rating system on Dec. 13, saying that the negative response from college presidents was expected.

“This is a fundamental change,” Duncan said. “Some people embrace that and some people are more wary or scared. I think skepticism is a good thing. It’s warranted. This is hard stuff.”

In a panel discussion on the subject Dec. 16 at the University of California at Davis, Deputy Under Secretary of Education Jamienne Studley emphasized that the rating system would not be a ranking system where colleges are compared to one another.

Even among college presidents, 19 percent responded in the Gallup poll that the rating system would have a positive effect on their institutions.

Humprheys is worried that the administration may ignore criticism and steamroll ahead with the original proposal. She believes that the Education Department will have a prototype of the plan that can be released later this year.

Gillen expressed optimism about openness on the part of the Education Department, but still had fears that the plan could go awry.

“I see quite a few paths where it ends well, and quite a few paths where it doesn’t,” he said.

Sam Clemence is an intern for Deseret News where he works with the opinion section staff and as a reporter for the enterprise team.