UC system president Napolitano ‘deeply skeptical’ about Education’s college rating system

Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security and current president of the University of California system, sits down with The Washington Post's Nick Anderson to discuss her transition out of the Obama administration. (The Washington Post)

Janet Napolitano, who was President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary before being named president of the University of California system this past summer, said Friday that she was “deeply skeptical” of a plan by the administration to rate colleges according to specific criteria because it is too hard to develop meaningful data points.

Napolitano, who was secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013, told Washington Post reporters and editors that she had not yet had a chance to talk to Education Secretary Arne Duncan about his plan and has until now been reluctant to voice a public opinion.

“I am deeply skeptical that there are criteria that can be developed that are in the end meaningful because there will be so many exceptions, once you get down to it,” she said. “It’s not like, you know, you’re not buying a car or a boat. And so I hope to have the opportunity to engage in a productive way in this discussion.”

She also said: “I don’t think that there are a lot of apples to apples comparisons” in regard to criteria that doesn’t have multiple exceptions and that are legitimate comparisons among institutions of higher education.

Obama and Duncan have said they will unveil federal ratings of colleges by 2015, and the Education Department is seeking the criteria that will be used in the effort. One data point that may be used — and that has generated a lot of concern among educators — is the amount of money graduates earn after they leave a college.

A number of college presidents have been critical of the plan, but it is notable that a former Obama administration Cabinet member is publicly expressing opposition to one of its initiatives. It is interesting, too, that the criticism is coming from the president of the largest public research university system in the country. My colleague Nick Anderson reported earlier that an informal Washington Post survey of college and university presidents in the Washington region and elsewhere found a public-private divide, with “public institutions, long accustomed to government oversight and disclosure of their records, seem, in general, more open to new accountability measures than private ones.”

Asked whether her skepticism — which is matched by that of many college presidents — amounted to a refusal to be held accountable, she said that institutions of higher education are not opposed and in fact are held accountable by boards, state legislatures and others. She also said there is a lot of information about colleges already available to the public.

She also said that she thinks that the notion of why young people should go to college has changed from being an experience that prepares young people to be well-rounded citizens in America to one that is intended to culminate in a job.

“Now I think it is much more transactional,” she said. “I think the pendulum needs to be somewhere in the middle.”

Napolitano comes from an academic family; her father was the dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 6, 2013