Obama proposes ‘college scorecard’ to rate universities based on ‘value

Published: Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 2:30 p.m. CDT

(MCT) BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Obama administration will wade into the controversial business of rating colleges and universities based on their “value,” President Barack Obama announced Thursday as he unveiled a set of proposals aimed at tackling the rising cost of higher education.

The “college scorecard” would help students decide whether a school is worth the hefty tuition bills and help the government decide where to spend federal aid money, while giving image-conscious schools an incentive to keep costs down.

The new system is a notable attempt to influence institutions that are largely out of the federal government’s reach. But the proposals drew criticism as fraught with potential pitfalls and unintended consequences.

Higher education experts worried about the criteria used to devise the ratings and whether the government had reliable data. Some Republicans suggested the administration was moving toward federal regulation or price controls.

The president has repeatedly cited college affordability as a key element of his long-term drive to restore middle-class security. Kicking off a two-day bus tour of colleges in New York and Pennsylvania, Obama said he hoped the rating system would help make college more accessible.

“Higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America,” Obama said, speaking to about 7,000 students at the University of Buffalo. “If we don’t do something about keeping it within reach, it will create problems for economic mobility for generations to come.”

The rating system would be developed in time for the 2015 school year using such metrics as the percentage of students receiving Pell grants (for low-income students), the average student debt incurred by graduates, graduation rates, average tuition and graduate incomes.

Obama will ask Congress to pass legislation giving students at higher-rated colleges larger grants and more affordable loans starting in 2018.

Sandy Baum, an expert on higher education policy and a senior fellow at the George Washington School of Education, called that plan a “very problematic idea.” “It would be very complicated, and it would punish the students for issues that their institutions face,” she said. “It’s hard to see how that would be constructive.”

Baum and others suggested that that step, which would not come until after Obama had left office, was unlikely to get much traction in Congress.

One key lawmaker immediately offered a cool reception.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he was “concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage — and even lead to federal price controls.”

Obama also called for new incentives to push colleges to adopt programs that could reduce costs — such as offering three-year degrees. He also proposed expanding an income-based student loan debt repayment plan. Currently, only students who took out loans from 2008 to 2011 are eligible for the program, which caps debt payments at 10 percent of income.

White House officials said they were mindful that the rating system risked looking like other controversial, but influential, scorecards, such as the annual college rankings published by U.S. News and World Report. Those rankings, often based partially on student surveys, have drawn criticism for being subjective.

“These are ratings, not rankings,” said James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “There’s not going to be an attempt to distinguish, for example, between the 23rd and 24th best university.”

Still, experts and advocates noted potential problems. Federal data on graduation rates are flawed, counting students who transfer as dropouts, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education. The administration would need the approval of Congress to require schools to submit better information.

“The president of the United States, according to the federal government, is a college dropout because he started at Occidental but then transferred and graduated from Columbia,” Hartle joked, a reference to Obama’s time at the Los Angeles college before he switched to the university in New York.

Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and an expert on the economics of higher education, cautioned that tuition data were more complex than they appeared.

“While I admire and support the president’s focus on college affordability, it is critical to distinguish between the ‘sticker price’ institutions list and what students actually pay after accounting for financial aid,” he wrote in an email. “In calculating ‘value,’ you have to begin with what students from different income brackets actually pay.”

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©2013 Tribune Co.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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