Newspaper article International New York Times

Obama's Plans to Rate Colleges Alarm Higher Education Leaders

Newspaper article International New York Times

Obama's Plans to Rate Colleges Alarm Higher Education Leaders

Article excerpt

The Obama administration is developing a rating system to hold colleges and universities accountable and help prospective students pick their schools.

The college presidents were appalled. Not only had President Obama called for a government rating system for their schools, but now one of his top education officials was actually suggesting it would be as easy as evaluating a kitchen appliance.

"It's like rating a blender," Jamienne S. 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 several who were present. "This is not so hard to get your mind around."

The rating system is in fact a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America's 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons. For years that task has been dominated by private companies like Barron's and U.S. News & World Report.

Mr. Obama and his aides say colleges and universities that receive a total of $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants must prove they are worth it. The problem is acute, they insist: At too many schools, tuition is going up, graduation rates are going down, and students are leaving with enormous debt and little hope of high-paying jobs.

The idea that the government would try to rate the schools has rattled the entire higher education system, from elite private institutions to large state universities to community colleges.

"Applying a sledgehammer to the whole system isn't going to work," said Robert G. Templin Jr., the president of Northern Virginia Community College. "They think their vision of higher education is the only one." Many college leaders accuse the president of grasping for a simplistic solution to what they call a crisis of soaring tuition.

The rating system, which the president called for in a speech last year and is under development, would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating. Ultimately, Mr. Obama wants Congress to agree to use the ratings to allocate the billions in federal student loans and grants. Schools that earn a high rating on the government's list would be able to offer more student aid than schools at the bottom.

Many college presidents said a rating system like the one being considered at the White House would elevate financial concerns above academic ones and would punish schools with liberal arts programs and large numbers of students who major in programs like theater arts, social work or education, disciplines that do not typically lead to lucrative jobs.

They also predicted that institutions that serve minority and low- income students, many of whom come from underfunded schools and have had less college preparation, would rank lowest in a new rating system, hurting the very populations the president says he wants to help.

William E. Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said Mr. Obama's desire to hold down costs and improve graduation rates is a "noble effort." But he questioned the wisdom of trying to create a rating system. "It's hard for me to imagine how that can work," said Dr. Kirwan.

But officials said Mr. Obama was determined to shake up a system that he has said costs too much and often provides too little value. …

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