College presidents on Obama’s rating plan

August 30, 2013

The Washington Post asked several leaders of colleges and universities about President Obama’s plan to rate their institutions by 2015 and link student aid to those ratings by 2018.

Read on for responses from leaders of Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Catholic, Howard, Morgan State, the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Maryland at College Park, Oregon State, University of Virginia, George Mason, William & Mary, University System of Maryland, Goucher, Vassar, St. John’s, Marymount, Washington and Lee, Davidson, Stevenson, Hood, Trinity Washington and Excelsior.

Private research universities

From Cornell University President David J. Skorton:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Skorton: We need to give parents and students access to appropriate and robust metrics that not only inform their choices but also recognize the huge variety of educational institutions in the United States and therefore promote a better appreciation for the full range of educational options available to all Americans. But an attempt to measure with a single yardstick will run the risk of further masking the actual institutional richness and variety that is a distinction and a strength of American higher education, ranging from agile community colleges that are critical to workforce training to the most advanced research universities, whose mission is as much about discovery and innovation as about undergraduate education. So the basic idea is a good one and critical and its success will depend upon the metrics used.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Skorton: These metrics are a good starting point but they need to be corrected for the population entering the college. Using graduate earnings as a metric of success is a bad idea because it will predictably lead to a narrower focus on whatever vocational path is timely and topical, at the expense of the liberal education that has been so critical to the success of our nation. The evidence suggests that today’s graduates, as in years past, will make many job and even career changes in a lifetime, arguing against this metric. Metrics of faculty quality also seem lacking.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Skorton: Federal aid should be targeted where it is needed most, based on student need and the quality of higher education delivered. It is the definition of quality that will be difficult.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Skorton: Overall, I applaud President Obama for focusing the nation’s attention on educational quality and access. I also applaud the President for entering boldly into this area that is critical for the future of our nation and for inviting leaders from across higher education into an important national debate. I am confident we can make progress together.

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From Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Daniels: President Obama is concerned about both the affordability of a college education and access to college for students from difficult economic circumstances. Those are concerns I share.

We want to work with the president and Congress to ensure that costs and family finances do not prevent qualified students from considering, attending and graduating from college.

Clearly, more data about costs, financial aid and outcomes at individual schools can help students and families make more informed choices — choices that best address their unique needs, goals and circumstances.

But that is a key point: Each family is unique. Given the exact same data, families are going to make quite different decisions about colleges, because their needs, goals and circumstances differ.

So I would be very cautious about creating some sort of composite “value” rating of colleges and universities. Any rating system I can imagine assumes that different families care about the same things and place the same priority on each of those things. And, in reality, they do not.

Students make choices based on what is right for them and for their families. Transparent, easy-to-access information is what they need, not a “one-size-fits-all” rating system.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Daniels: As I said, I am very cautious about a rating system. But, as I also said, information about how colleges perform is important to students and families. Knowing the number of students with Pell grants, for instance, does help to gauge how well an institution serves low-income students.

On graduate earnings: Our mission – especially at institutions that educate students in the liberal arts – is to educate students to be the best people they can be. When we accomplish that, a broad range of career options is open to them. We want our graduates to become the world’s best teachers, researchers, social service leaders and artists as well as the world’s best business leaders, doctors and lawyers.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Daniels: As I have mentioned, I am skeptical of a rating system approach.

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Statement from Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia:

Understanding that universities are the greatest vehicle for social mobility in our country, Georgetown shares President Obama’s commitment to increasing access and reducing the cost of higher education.

Our commitment to increasing access and affordability led us to, in 1978, implement a need-blind, meet-full need admissions policy, to ensure that the very best students, regardless of background and resources, can come to Georgetown. Over the 2011-12 school year, Georgetown contributed more than $80 million to students in need-based aid, on top of the $9.5 million received in federal grant aid.

At Georgetown we are proud of the education we provide, its value to our students, and the opportunities it provides our alumni once they graduate, all of which is reflected in our low student-loan default rate, at 0.6% percent, well below the national average of 9.1%.

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From John Garvey, president of Catholic University of America:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Garvey: I’m not sure it’s a great idea to have the federal government rate colleges. How would you feel about having the federal government rate newspapers? There is something squidgy about having the government, federal or state, oversee our intellectual life in any of its important sectors.

Of course the reason we have backed into proposals like this is that the federal government spends so much money helping students to pay for college. That is the proposition we are really interested in. And in these financially straitened times, financial aid for education is welcome to both parents and schools.

But one of the questions we need to ask is, how much deeper do we want the government to get into this business, if it means the government will also be calling the tune?

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

President Obama’s plan seems primarily targeted toward public institutions. Students considering private schools like ours can certainly benefit from the information he suggests. And Catholic University would fare well on the proposed metrics — loan default rates and graduation rates, graduate earnings, advanced degrees after college, and overall affordability.

But the metrics don’t measure well the true value of our educational experience. We invest much of our time and effort in seeing that our students grow in both wisdom and virtue during their four years here. Numbers like transfer rates and earnings don’t tell prospective students much about this, and they don’t provide a basis for comparing an investment in our degree with other options.

Historically black universities

From Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Ribeau: It is widely accepted that America’s system of higher education is the best in the world and not by a small margin. One aspect of this strength is the diversity levels, types, sponsors, purposes, foci and perspectives of its colleges and universities. I am pleased to see increased interest in strategies to support them and ensure that they have adequate and equitably distributed resources with which to provide access and high quality education to their students, and services to the communities they serve. While a single rigid metric-based rating system is not advisable, we need to continue the dialogue about how to ensure that students are enrolling in affordable colleges and universities that provide them the best value and necessary learning opportunities.

Any rating system should drive the type of changes the nation would like to achieve, including quality enhancement, responsiveness and leadership of change, cost management, and increased affordability and access. Our colleges and universities have been a foundational element of the nation’s democratic pluralism and economic progress, so we must proceed with resoluteness, but due caution as we further enhance and support this bedrock of our nation.

Diverse evaluation and accountability frameworks can and should co-exist and be applied on the database of government collected information for use in assessing the performance of our colleges and universities. I look forward to joining with other college and university presidents in giving President Obama, congressional, state and local leaders our best advice about how to proceed where this important issue is concerned.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Ribeau: The percentage of students receiving federal Pell Grants, average tuition, merit and need-based scholarships awarded, student loan debt, graduation and transfer rates, post-graduation earnings, and advanced degrees pursued and earned are important indicators of the status of a college or university. However, they are not inclusive of all the variables that define the performance of colleges and universities and the value they add to students and the communities they serve. Notable among additional factors are the extent to which students are advanced by their educational experience (“value added”); the record in attracting, retaining and graduating at-risk students; research contributions and the preparation of future researchers; and the level of performance of the college or university’s social mission. I say with pride that Howard University has high levels of performance and is actively working to further improve in each of the above-mentioned areas.

Assessment of the value that colleges and universities add must always include the intrinsic personal, economic, social and cultural benefits associated with attending and graduating from a college or university. Additional attention to quality, cost, and institutional performance is a good thing, but a useful rating system must reflect what we value as society and as individuals. We must ask: what does any ratings system that might be developed say about what we value?

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college and university value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Ribeau: It is premature at this point to link federal student aid to a single metric-based rating system. The President has initiated a necessary discussion about this important issue that will give stakeholders an opportunity to debate it and design ways to more effectively finance student access to higher education and enhance educational attainment, quality and accountability.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Ribeau: The college or university experience is multi-faceted in nature. The college and university experience changes lives, and bachelor’s degree recipients are very different at graduation than they were as entering students. Beyond traditional academic outcomes and career readiness, “college” changes involve maturation, personal development, interpersonal skills and leadership, independence, and a greater depth of experience. If we focus too heavily or exclusively on content transfer, career preparation, earnings potential and placement rates, we will alter irreversibly our approach to higher education and lessen its benefits to our democracy and the well-being of our citizens. “College” education does far more than powering the economy and preparing future employees. Rather, higher education is complex and serves many different important social, economic and personal purposes. One size or type of school does not fit all in a plural society such as the United States that draws strength from its diversity.

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From Morgan State University President David Wilson:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Wilson: The devil will be in the details, and the details about how this would work are not yet known. We must be very careful not to end up with a system of rating colleges and universities where institutions with plentiful resources are more advantaged than those without such resources. Certainly, if you accept a disproportionate number of students with stratospheric SAT scores, and if you have large endowments, such a rating system could become a cakewalk for those institutions.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Wilson: The metrics proposed by the president are outcome measures that we are embracing at Morgan, and in many instances, being embraced around the country. Over the last several years, there has been increased emphasis on college completion and affordability, and we certainly are paying close attention to those measures. However, college education should not simply be about how much money a person makes. There are other factors that should be considered as well; factors such as producing effective leaders for our public and private organizations; imbuing in graduates a sense of strong humanitarian principles; producing outstanding teachers for our public schools, and graduating students who understand what it means to be an outstanding citizen. We have to be careful as we go through this next period of American higher education not to simply equate the achievements of the college degrees exclusively with high salaries.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Wilson: I am not sure that the proposals that have been proffered by the president will make college more affordable. After all, faculty salaries continue to increase. It is more costly to build buildings and laboratories. And, it is costly to conduct the type of research that the nation needs for innovation, job creation and overall competitiveness.

One aspect of the president’s proposal that is very intriguing is the notion of something that is being discussed in the state of Oregon where the state would provide resources upfront to enable students to go to college free, and these students would pay the state back after they finish based on their salaries.

I like that idea because it provides opportunity and access to a larger number of Americans who desire to go to college, but do not have the upfront resources to do so.

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From James E. Lyons Sr., interim president of the University of the District of Columbia:

I am not sure that rating colleges on best value will accomplish [President Obama’s] concern for keeping colleges affordable. If a state university has a less-than-favorable rating, but is in the price range of most parents, I don’t think it will change their minds. Some of the metrics, if chosen, will work for us and some will not. We have a lot of Pell grant students and our price is competitive, but we have a low graduation rate, so how would we be rated? I basically do not think that federal aid should be linked to these ratings. Colleges increase tuition for a number of reasons, such as increases in our costs. If we can keep our costs down, we don’t have to pass it on to the student.

Public universities

From Robert L. Caret, president of the University of Massachusetts:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Caret: I have no objections to a ratings system, but to inspire the greatest level of confidence in it I think the U.S. Department of Education should work with national higher education associations, such as the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to develop and formalize the ratings system. The Voluntary System of Accountability program is a good example of how education associations can actively help the federal government bring about greater accountability among higher education institutions.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Caret: Generally speaking, these metrics are fine, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to give too much weight to what a person earns after graduation. While a graduate’s earnings are important, they do not necessarily reflect the overall value of the student’s college experience. I would not want us to discourage students from becoming teachers, or social workers, or artists or community organizers because of the amount of money they’ll earn when they graduate. I think we want to encourage students to choose their majors for a variety of reasons - not just based on the money. In terms of additional metrics, we could consider including retention rates – does the student go from 1st year to 2nd year and 2nd year to 3rd year? – as well as alumni surveys to determine their view of how well their institutions prepared them for work and life.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Caret: In general, I think it is fine to link aid to success, both student and institutional success. I strongly believe that we shouldn’t be throwing money at institutions that are not successful and that are not properly educating students. However, I am concerned about the rules of engagement and the parameters around deciding which institutions get aid and which do not. I also think it’s important to distinguish among the types of institutions and the types of student bodies the colleges and universities serve.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Caret: I think that President Obama has focused on the key issues: institutional and student accountability, standards, expected outcomes and transparency. It is no longer acceptable merely to report on outcomes, we need to set goals and be held accountable based on performance. The current system isn’t meeting the needs of students and falls short of meeting our social and economic needs - and we can no longer afford this lack of success from a human capital and fiscal perspective. I applaud President Obama for challenging us to do better. I know that we can and we will. There is too much at stake for us to do otherwise.

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From Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland at College Park:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Loh: I support it. To use performance-based metrics to reshape higher education is a big and bold idea. At stake is whether higher education remains the great equalizer of conditions in our democracy.

Most college rankings are based primarily on input measures such as institutional prestige and student selectivity. The Obama plan rates colleges on the basis of educational outcomes. It also rates them on affordability and access, at a time when steadily rising tuition puts college increasingly out of reach for many students.

I think prospective students and their families will look at both kinds of ratings when choosing a college. The more information is available, and the more ways it is analyzed and presented, the more informed consumers will be.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Loh: There is always subjectivity in the choice of metrics. For example, there are different ways of assessing educational outcomes. There are different ways of measuring any given outcome such as “graduation rate” (4-year rate? 6-year rate? a separate index for those who take longer to graduate because of a double major or joint degrees?). There is no one best rating system for assessing outcomes, affordability, and access, but that is not a reason to not have a rating system at all. Once all the raw information is gathered and made available publicly, the marketplace will produce other rating systems that may be better, or not, than the Obama proposal.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Loh: Without the linkage, the federal rating system is toothless. If the purpose is to change institutional behavior, there must be incentives and disincentives to bring about that change.

But there has to be more discussion and testing of the rating system before it is implemented and linked to federal financial aid. Linking aid to graduation rates could hurt some students who most need that aid. For example, there are institutions that serve primarily low income, minority, and first generation college students. They arrive to college under-prepared, so they have abysmally low graduation rates. To reduce or cut-off their aid because of the school’s low graduation would be wrong.

The formula that links aid to ratings has to be adjusted in this situation. Given the diversity of higher education institutions, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Loh: I applaud President Obama for his vision and courage. The rating system may be imperfect, but the impact of the message he sends is huge. There has to be more accountability and affordability in higher education.

There is no one magic solution on how to reduce costs, increase access, and preserve or increase quality. The traditional view is that these are either-or choices. To increase the quality and profile of our institutions, one has to spend more (for better facilities, top faculty, etc.). One has to raise tuition to pay for these increased costs. Hence, “quality” rankings go up, but the trade-off is that access and affordability for students goes down.

The Obama plan challenges the traditional paradigm by reframing “quality” in terms of educational outcomes rather than “prestige.” And it reduces the federal financial aid that drives this paradigm.

However, the ratings plan, linked to aid, is not a magic solution. This is a complex issue that will require the application of multiple solutions. For example, increased state appropriations to public colleges—or, at least, less draconian cuts to public higher education budgets—has to be part of the solution.

More and smarter use educational technology to improve learning has to be part of the mix. This includes online education, “blended” learning (combining online and face-to-face education), and course redesign to improve learning outcomes and reduce attrition.

For example, the University of Maryland at College Park has the lowest tuition for in-state students among its peer institutions. That’s because the governor froze tuition increases and provided state appropriations at a time when most states slashed spending and allowed their public colleges to raise tuition. Concurrently, we implemented efficiencies that reduced administrative costs. We expanded academic advising. We expanded living-learning communities so that students can bond with each other and thereby shrink the psychological size of the institution. We redesigned large and required gateway courses (e.g., introductory calculus), resulting in improved learning, increased retention, and increased graduation rates. And, all these student-oriented innovations do cost money.

As a result, Kiplinger magazine in January 2013 rated the University of Maryland as the 5th “best value” among all public colleges in the country, based on our “academic quality and affordability.” My guess is that we would also do well in the federal rating system. But regardless of how we fare under this system, President Obama has issued a needed call to action.

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From Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University:

1. I think that all colleges and universities should post metrics such as six year graduation rates (including transfers), diversity, percentage of students eligible for Pell grants, average resident and non-resident tuition if different and net of scholarships and remissions, transferability of credits into and out of the school, average loan debt upon graduation, advanced degrees among graduates and mid-career average earnings. How to best measure these variables and others should be debated.

Beyond required metrics, I hope colleges and universities will compete along other relevant dimensions that get at the issue of quality ... . I also hope that they would indicate their engagement in degree partnerships with community colleges, early college experiences with high schools and community colleges and reverse transfer programs so that community college students can earn their associates degree retroactively while at a four year institution. There are other dimensions of the learning environment worth posting too, including the use of online and hybrid courses for resident students, study abroad, service learning, research opportunities for undergraduates and much more.

I like many of the president’s proposed measures because I like the values they reflect and I support federal posting of them as a last resort. My preference would be for all schools to post these metrics and perhaps others voluntarily in their recruiting material and on their web-sites. Clearly, those schools with the worst numbers will not publish them, so a voluntary system will not work. My second preference would be for accreditation agencies to require posting of this information. Assuming that is only partially accomplished, I support states’ requiring that information. Federal collection and required posting of that information would be the last alternative but not one I would reject if privacy safeguards could be developed.

2. I have no more problem with federal ratings than I do with other current ratings such as US News and World Report, Washington Monthly, Forbes, Fiske and many others. I have a common concern with all of them. Rankings invite too precise distinctions among schools given available metrics. I would prefer block assessments that can be supported with the data, such as A, B, C, F, or, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Unacceptable.

I do not believe that existing metrics support the proposition that the top 100 schools are twice as good as the next 100 or that there is much difference among them. I do believe that the least effective colleges and universities should have to post their numbers so that students and parents know that these institutions are high risk propositions for college success. Schools that are judged on the basis of broad metrics to be in the “F” or “Unacceptable” category should not be schools to which students could apply federal financial aid.

What gets lost in much of this discussion is that education is a joint product of the institution and its programs and services and the student’s effort, abilities and perseverance. When we buy a car, we would like to know what its maintenance record, safety record and average gas mileage will be in 10 years, but we cannot get that information because it depends on both the car and the driver. Graduates of the “best” colleges and universities sometimes do not accomplish much, and students from “lesser” colleges and universities can change the world. The object of this exercise should be to identify schools that simply are not performing acceptably and to stop sending federal loan dollars to them.

I think requiring schools to post costs of attendance net of scholarships and remissions along with average performance results for students will help drive the worst performers out of business or toward acceptable performance. Everyone else will know that students and families can comparison shop and that competition should help to keep costs down. Increased transparency would steer students toward better options.

You did not ask but it seems to me that requirements for progress toward degree completion should be part of determining Pell Grant eligibility. Such performance requirements would encourage students to speed up the completion process and choose carefully where to enroll among institutions, both of which would reduce debt upon graduation.

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From Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Sullivan: We support the idea that students and families should have a wealth of information about their higher education choices. And that includes information that helps them gauge the value of a degree.

We believe U.Va. provides a tremendous bargain to students in the Commonwealth and nation. We look forward to learning more about a federal rating system.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Sullivan: Those metrics are basic measures that play a role in determining the value of a college degree or assessing the return on investment of attending a certain college. Students who attend the University of Virginia predominantly stay here for their full undergraduate career. They graduate in high percentages that are among national leaders. They graduate with far less student debt than the national average. And they enter the workforce with a starting salary of more than $50,000, according to research by PayScale.com.

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From Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University:

I support President Obama’s efforts to increase accountability and transparency in higher education, to drive attention to outcomes that really matter to students and society at large.

While no metric is perfect, the ones laid out by the President are a good set. These measures will help highlight the value that institutions provide, in a way that several popular media rankings don’t.

Under this new light, institutions like Mason will stand out as great investments for students and taxpayers. For instance, Pell Grants at the university total 28 percent, one of the highest percentages among doctoral institutions in Virginia. which means that we are providing relatively greater access for students who are economically disadvantaged. In addition, the university is often cited for its graduation and retention rates among ethnic, minority and Pell Grant students. Furthermore, Mason graduates earn more after 18 months than graduates from any other institution in the state, and have low loan default rates. Tuition increases at Mason are among the lowest in the Commonwealth, and the university spends significantly less per student than its peer institutions.

None of these metrics matter in traditional rankings and yet they should matter to all of us much more than how many students are rejected or how big our endowment is per student.

For President Obama’s proposed metrics to drive innovation and change, it is important that there be consequences attached to them. Linking federal student aid to those ratings is one way to do it, and one that will clearly call the attention of universities.

One thing I would add to President Obama’s proposal has to do with state funding. Among public universities, the single biggest driver in tuition inflation has been a general and significant disinvestment by states in their colleges and universities. Federal funding of education should encourage states to reinvest in higher education and should reward those states that do.

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From Taylor Reveley, president of the College of William & Mary:

The president’s plan remains to be spelled out in concrete detail. It’s important to see how it evolves before we confidently appraise its potential. For example, we need to see how the rating system will work – how “high performing” colleges and universities will be defined. As a practical matter, we believe William & Mary performs at a high level of excellence and, thus, ought to do well under such a rating system. As you know from covering the W&M Promise [a recent tuition initiative], we are very much focused on making a college education more affordable for low- and middle-income families in Virginia. We also want to make the cost of education more predictable for all students. Affordability and accessibility are two pieces of President Obama’s plan. So are outcomes. William & Mary has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, and our graduates prove to be extremely productive citizens. Nearly 60 percent of our undergraduates leave William & Mary with no debt, those that do borrow have debt well below the national norm, and the default rate among our graduates who borrowed money to help finance college is 0.06%, among the lowest in the country. We look forward to seeing how the president’s plan takes concrete form and hope there is an opportunity to take part in the discussion.

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From William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland:

* I fully support the president’s call for much greater attention to the education of low income students. Given that a higher ed degree has become a passport to a good job and high quality of life in America and given that at present only 8% of low income students ever get a 4-year degree, I think this has become the social equity issue of our time.

* The nation in general and higher education in particular simply must do a better job of serving and supporting low income students through to a college degree if we have any hope of recapturing our historical national ethos as the quintessential upwardly mobile society. Today, we have slipped from leadership in this regard to near the bottom among the industrialized nations…behind even England with whom we fought a war (in part) to escape the class system of the British Empire.

* So the president is addressing a vitally important issue, one that has enormous long term implications for our democracy.

* I support many of his proposals, including a Race to the Top Program for higher education.

* I support the call for bringing costs under better control, through a combination of better state support and more innovation in higher education on finding lower cost means of delivering high quality education.

* I believe we do need a new ranking system, one more aligned with our societal and national needs. The present system of rankings, represented by US News, works against these needs because they reward selectivity and the use of institutional aid to “buy” high SAT achievers (who would be going to college in any case) at the expense of deserving and capable low income students who struggle with expenses in the absence of more aid.

* I do question a ranking based on income levels of college graduates. Many students with degrees in the arts and humanities start with low income jobs and go on to have very important and meaningful careers. We certainly do not want to discourage students form pursuing rigorous degrees in whatever disciplines attract their interests.

But, I think it would be a huge mistake if higher ed leaders started picking at the flaws in the president’s proposals rather than supporting his overarching, powerful and compelling message.

Private liberal arts and master’s colleges

From Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College:

While I share President Obama’s concern about college affordability and student debt, I worry about any ranking scheme that can be influenced by the fashions, or the definitions, of the moment. “Value” has many possible interpretations, and the thought that the standard – and thus the rankings – might change from one administration to another is horrifying.

It is well established that people not only tend to earn more money, but also to have a better life, if they get a college education. However, it is simplistic, and ultimately mischievous, to suggest that students should choose their major on the basis of “graduate earnings.” We have to take a much longer view than just looking at the pay people earn in their first job out of college. There is no way to put a precise monetary value on different types of learning, and even if we do, the calculations will inevitably change over time. Many of the people who are now advocating narrow skills education as the true path themselves received a liberal arts education and majored in the very things they are trying to scare people away from studying today.

A one-size-fits-all rating system, devised by the federal government, will not solve any of the problems plaguing higher education today. There are many ways to make college more affordable. One is for the federal government to say that lowering the cost of a college education is a top national priority, and for Congress to put dollars behind doing that the way it puts them behind other things it care about. As usual, we have to follow the money.

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From Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Hill: The rankings done by the private sector, including [U.S. News and World Report], are very controversial. There is no reason to expect the federal government to do this better than the private sector, mainly because the idea behind a unique ranking that is appropriate for all students doesn’t make any sense. Different students care about different things, and the rankings combine a variety of measures that may not be relevant or important to all students.

What has been helpful to students and families from the rankings is the information that has become available as a result. The government could help students and families by continuing to make data available. But, combining those data into yet another single ranking will not be helpful.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Hill: Making some of these data available would be very helpful to students and families. (Combining them in a single ranking will not be. See above.) But, this list has some problems. Information on Pell grants is important for students and families mostly from the bottom 20% to 30% of the income distribution. It doesn’t give students and families from middle-income families helpful information. It would be more useful to report the share of students from, and the price that students are expected to pay after financial aid (the net price), by each of the income quintiles, so that students could both see whether the school matriculates many students from families like theirs and how much they should expect to pay.

This is a good example of where tying financial aid to a specific indicator has to be done very carefully, or there could be unintended consequences. For example, if targeted to the share of students on Pell grants, colleges and universities could control their financial aid budgets by cutting back on aid to middle income students, who are generally ineligible for Pell grants.

Earnings data are also problematic, for the following reasons.

Earnings depend on choice of profession.

Some students will go to graduate school, delaying earnings.

Some students will choose to stay home and raise families.

Earnings over a lifetime is what really matters, and not at a point in time.

The federal government should not be involved in students’ decisions about which profession to pursue, or whether they decide to stay home and raise a family.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Hill: Many federal tax and spending policies are targeted to create incentives to encourage or discourage particular behavior on the part of the private sector or state governments. This is one way that the public sector can fulfill its role. But, because of the problems around rankings, it seems highly unlikely that this particular proposal will work.

The federal government does have a role in encouraging economic mobility and equal opportunity. But, more carefully targeted incentives will be needed to accomplish this. The proposed rankings include information that could be useful to students and families, but the combined ranking of this information will not be useful for targeting government subsidies.

As an example, the earnings variable will reward college and universities that produce investment bankers, but not school teachers. And, this could offset some school’s doing exceptionally well at recruiting low-income students. It isn’t clear that this is what the Department of Education even means to do. Information on the returns to different professions is important and information on which schools will prepare you for which careers is important. But, government incentives should not be targeted at changing individuals’ decisions about this. And, it shouldn’t be allowed to offset other objectives, such as educating a diverse student body, within a simple ranking.

Much of federal aid is justified by supporting equal opportunity. Some simple incentives to colleges and universities to educate their fair share of low and middle income students in exchange for government support is much more likely to be effective, than an incentive that has many objectives all combined.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Hill: Most students are educated at public colleges and universities. They have become more expensive primarily because states have cut back support. Federal policy aimed at encouraging renewed state commitment to higher education, as proposed by President Obama, could help.

The main driving force behind increasing costs (as opposed to the price that people are asked to pay, or tuition minus any financial aid) is the increased economic return to skilled labor in the United States. The federal government has a role to play in moderating the significant increase in income inequality in the United States, which would reduce some of the cost pressures in higher education. Rising income inequality has contributed to increased tuition, increased spending, and greater financial aid needs at many colleges and universities.

***

From Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Nelson: The effort cannot hope to succeed without doing a lot of unintended damage. There are a few reasons for this:

a. To the extent that the ‘value’ of an education is measured by the dollar, in terms of cost, price, future earnings, and economic development, it fundamentally mischaracterizes what higher education is about. The highest learning—the kind that helps you to become the owner of your life—is not a commodity any more than your life is a commodity.

We have forgotten that we were not born wearing money-colored glasses and that we yearn for many things besides money to make happy lives worth living. So, to measure the value of an education in terms of its economic return or price of entry is to encourage more of the commoditization of education and thereby cheapen it. The kind of rating that seems to be behind this most recent plan will not serve those students who are looking for something else in life.

b. To the extent that ‘value’ is not measured in monetary terms, it will be most elusive indeed as each student values and weighs so many different things in choosing a college that is the right fit.

c. I am a father of five children, each of whom attended a different college or university. And why was this? Because the college or university that was best suited to one child was not best suited to another. Just as each college or university is different and has its own distinctive characteristics of academic and community life, so each student has his or her own life to pursue and find, a life that is unique and should not be put on a value scale either. Rating of any kind suggests that students are looking for something that is common to them all; it also assumes that colleges are more alike than they are. Better instead to find ways of getting as much information about each school to each student and let them make their own ratings, ones that will suit their own needs.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Nelson: Since education is not a commodity, no “metrics” associated with economics are suitable to measure it. Again, what is priceless cannot be counted or measured. We have forgotten that there are things that cannot be quantified, and the attempt to apply “metrics” to unquantifiable things will inevitably distort our conception of those things.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Nelson: This is the most pernicious suggestion in the proposal. To tie aid to government ratings would be to manipulate student choice based on institutional factors. The government would be telling families what kind of education supports a government administration’s idea of what is in a student’s best interest. It would have the effect of reducing student choice, undermining the fundamental principle of free government, that it takes a freely educated people seeking the best way for each of its citizens to make a life worth living and to help shape a society that will in turn protect the lives and happiness of them all.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Nelson: We are grateful to the president for his support of the Pell Grant and the Opportunity Tax Credit to help families pay for a college education. In turn, our colleges and universities continue to provide their own institutional funds to supplement these government programs, often at a cost far exceeding all the support from government sources. We share the desire to help make education affordable.

***

From Matt Shank, president of Marymount University:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and university on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Shank: President Obama’s efforts to address access, affordability, and quality/outcomes are laudable. However, assessing quality and value becomes tricky when the details are examined. President Obama puts emphasis on graduates’ earnings, for example. Does this mean that universities that have more graduates going into high-earning fields will rank higher than those with a majority of graduates in the arts or public service?

My questions continue: What about the value of a liberal arts education? Some of the most successful CEOs have a liberal arts background. It is precisely their breadth of knowledge and critical thinking skills, provided by a liberal arts foundation, that have enabled them to analyze, adapt, and succeed.

I’m not opposed to metrics in principle, but metrics are only as good as the data collected. When looking at higher education, there are so many factors that are necessary to capture in order to gain a full appreciation of value.

WP: What metrics would you support?

Shank: A ranking system would need to take into account the academic preparedness of the students served. A college serving high-risk students will tend to have a lower graduation rate than one serving primarily high-achieving high school graduates.

In addition, maintaining small classes with a high level of faculty-student interaction – something central to Marymount University’s educational philosophy – can mean higher overhead.

Metrics to measure value would need to capture such differentials in a way that doesn’t penalize the institution for providing these services.

One metric that the president mentions is advanced degrees earned by graduates after they leave their undergraduate alma mater. I’m not sure a system currently exists to track graduates as they move forward with their lives and careers. Surveys provide limited feedback.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Shank: I agree that federal student aid needs reforming. Students are incurring more debt than they can handle, and the government is losing money while students are not always gaining the benefits they hoped for.

A good rating system would, of necessity, be complex and incorporate myriad factors that are difficult -- but perhaps not impossible -- to measure. The president’s proposed system relies on very limited factors. One of the strengths of American higher education is the diversity of choices. One size does not fit all. Some students thrive in a large institution; others need a more intimate learning community. Still others want a college that provides learning within a framework of religious values. I would not want to see educational choices limited by a federal financial aid system that favors certain institutions over others based on just a few criteria.

I welcome the president’s invitation to provide input as his proposal develops and hope we can strengthen any resulting rating system by including metrics that capture the complex range of factors that define academic excellence.

WP: Other reactions?

Shank: The President’s proposal contains many good ideas, including tying repayment of student loans to monthly income and reducing regulatory barriers. I applaud the plan to encourage capable high school students to take college courses by providing them with financial aid. Marymount University already offers dual enrollment courses with a local high school.

I strongly believe in the value of assessment. At Marymount, we have an ongoing review process to evaluate academic programs, assess learning outcomes, and survey alumni. I also share President Obama’s desire to keep higher education affordable. Our country’s prosperity and our society’s well-being depend upon having well-educated citizens, who are prepared to make positive contributions to their professions and their communities.

***

From Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University:

Although the president’s focus on cost, affordability and value is understandable as part of an overall strategy to show support for the middle class in advance of looming debates on taxes and spending cuts, what I find missing is any meaningful discussion of learning and quality. In some ways the proposals seem almost less about education and much more about political positioning in a larger sense.

But it is hard for me to imagine that anything definitive will come from these proposals, at least for those pieces requiring legislative approval.

Along with the continuing dysfunctionality in Washington is a crowded agenda. There is another fiscal cliff looming with not yet a single appropriations bill so far passed, immigration reform, Syria, and the distraction of efforts to defund health care.

So I worry less about the coming legislative battles and much more about the continuing deterioration in how we talk about college education in this country. The language used by a president, the way he frames an issue, the way he defines a problem, and the points that get debated influence the way people view education -- and ultimately define what they see as its value and why it is or is not worth an investment, either as individuals investing in their own future or as a public investing in the common good.

During a time when the impacts of our political decisions in so many areas have longer and longer-term consequences, during precisely a time when we need a long-term perspective, we are increasingly focused on short-term consequences and narrow criteria. For me, the orienting principle has been what we owe to future generations as a society. I wish that could be a more central consideration.

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Ruscio: No, I do not think a rating or ranking is a good approach.

Here’s why: I despair that it will not focus on the real and significant value of an education, especially when I see words like “value” used in this context. The search for easy metrics will lead to measuring what can easily be measured, not what is of real value.

I don’t object to students having more information. I don’t object to the concern over affordability. I don’t object to focusing on performance. But I do worry that we are diminishing the discussion over education rather than elevating it and the president’s proposals haven’t helped.

Let me add quickly that my skepticism about “rating colleges based on consumers getting the best value” is not because I see W&L being disadvantaged. A couple of years ago the Department of Education did a study of four-year completion rates. First in the country was W&L with 92%. W&L also consistently shows up as a “best value” and highest “return on investment.” Our salary data for graduates is among the strongest anywhere. Our Pell numbers are not as high as I want them, but we have doubled the percentage in the last three years and they continue to rise. The graduation rate of Pell recipients at W&L is equivalent to that of student body generally, which is to say way above the national norm.

My skepticism is because I think such an approach detracts from how we should be thinking about education. Students are not “consumers.” They should see their stake in education as an investment in their future and one that “pays off” in how they decide to lead their lives. I know that sounds like ivory tower idealism, but we became educators because we wanted to have a meaningful impact on the lives of our students, not because we wanted to be glorified placement directors.

***

From Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College:

WP: Do you support or oppose the idea that the federal government should rate colleges and universities on which schools provide consumers with the best value?

Quillen: Yes, if done thoughtfully. “Return on investment” is a better term than “value,” because it more accurately reflects how students think abut college and it will encourage us to collect extensive longitudinal data about our graduates. Furthermore, schools have different missions. Davidson educates for lives of leadership and service, so we expect our graduates to have disproportionate impact in the world. To measure this, we will need to track our graduates for decades after they leave campus, a difficult task but one made feasible by new technologies.

WP: If you support this idea, do you also support using the metrics that the president proposed: the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates. If you don’t support these metrics, which ones would you support?

Quillen: Graduation rates (4-and-6 year), post-graduation employment rates, and loan repayment rates are crucial metrics for all schools and we support threshold rates for these metrics for all colleges and universities. Beyond that, one size does NOT fit all (“debt at graduation” is not meaningful in itself, since college degrees from different institutions do not offer comparable return on investment).

Successful institutions (high graduation rates, strong employment track record, strong debt repayment) can take on bigger challenges, like addressing the “mismatch” challenge (students enrolling at a college or university not well suited to their talents and aspirations), building a stronger bridge to K-12, attracting males nationally to higher education, and developing innovative uses of technology. Creating incentives that help schools address these challenges is a better way to improve access and affordability than extensive, punitive, one size fits all metrics beyond the three foundational ones mentioned above.

WP: If you support the idea of federal ratings of college value, do you support or oppose the idea of linking federal student aid to those ratings?

Quillen: We should certainly be held accountable. The best approach would define clear, high thresholds for graduation rates (perhaps averaged over 3 years), employment rates, and loan repayment rates. For schools that surpass these, incentives might work better than threats. Colleges and universities need to be free to innovate, which means taking risks. Strict, uniform, aggressively punitive metrics can inhibit creativity. Furthermore, we do not want to pit the interest of the school against the interest of the student. Sometimes transferring is the best thing a student can do, because another institution is actually better suited to his/her aspirations, talents, or circumstances. This is not necessarily a sign of failure.

WP: Any other reactions to President Obama’s ideas are also welcome. Will any of them make college more affordable, in your view?

Quillen: Affordability is partly a function of matching—getting each kid to the right school. And higher education is becoming increasingly differentiated as colleges and universities distinguish by mission and goal. We need a system of accountability that acknowledges this diversity of mission. One size fits all metrics beyond the three primary indicators—graduation rates, employment rates, and debt repayment rates—could stifle creativity, especially among competitive, successful institutions.

***

From Kevin Manning, president of Stevenson University:

I have served as president at Stevenson University, an independent university based near Baltimore, Md., for over twelve years. The university has achieved continued growth in that time period primarily due to our committed career focus and practical applications of academic topics. This has translated to continual above average national career placement--- a clear outcome of value to the families who send their students here. We are at the lower end of the spectrum in terms of cost for a private education, with almost a third of our student body first-generation students.

Clearly affordability remains an elusive goal for many students. President Obama’s goals to make higher education more affordable and accessible are laudable, but a one size fits all, or in this case, a single rating metrics system, is not likely to succeed. It may even reduce the diversity of educational approaches and experiences of the nation’s universities. The Obama plan is unlikely to impact the structural realities of higher education, but may serve the purpose of educating families to make better informed choices in advance of their college decisions if it is well thought-out and carefully developed. It will not be easy.

***

From Ronald Volpe, president of Hood College:

I don’t believe it’s in the best interests of higher education that the federal government paints all our institutions with a broad brush and ranks all our institutions. I just don’t know how you do that.

We’re an independent college, but we give a lot of money back to students and families in financial aid and grants. We work very hard to be affordable…[Government ratings would pick] winners and losers. They’re essentially saying where you should go to school and what you should study and major in. I just think it’s too much heavy-handed government.

We certainly are concerned about rising costs. We work tirelessly to keep that down. We are an academic enterprise. We offer an educational product at a certain price that yields a certain quality. If we don’t deliver on both of those, we’re not around….The marketplace is a tremendous evaluator of what we do at Hood.

***

From Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University:

WP: Why are you skeptical of the president’s plan?

McGuire: Basically I feel that this is going to create another level of regulation that’s going to cost more money. Far from helping us control costs, this whole thing is just going to add a cost burden, add expenses to higher education. ... At the end of the day, none of this really goes to improving or helping the quality of education.

I think we’re a pretty good model of cost control at Trinity. I look at these proposals and I think this is going to be a nightmare from a regulatory perspective....At the end of the day, the very expensive institutions are not going to feel one bit of shame about their tuition prices. They don’t care. They have a market that will pay just about any price to buy a seat.

Distance learning colleges

From John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College:

1) Don’t think we know enough to be too set in either our support or our opposition. As we often hear, the devil will be in the details. For instance, what constitutes “value?” Is this the surrogate for “quality,” which has eluded definition for years (quality in whose eyes - students, parents, faculty, employers?). Having said this, I am very skeptical that the Department of Education can achieve what U.S. News has been unable to do after years of trying. Neither [the Education Department’s] “Report Card” nor the data called for by their annual [surveys] even acknowledge the existence of the adult post traditional students, or the institutions that serve them.

2) While I understand why ED might want to use the metrics you list (for purposes unrelated to “value,” in some cases), I have trouble making the connection between these and something as subjective as “value.” I am also having trouble seeing how they lead to lower overall tuition. Such measures can be gamed, as has already happened with both law school rankings and those of U.S. News.

3) At this point, I am not sure what the right metrics might be. The ones that seem most relevant are graduation rates and some comparison of post graduation income to tuition paid. That will provide an INDICATOR of [return on investment]. However, the big questions here are who will collect this data and how are differences in the job market going to be adjusted for? If data collection and reporting are to fall to individual institutions there will be real costs, that in most cases will need to be passed on in the form of higher tuition.

4) I am not opposed to linking financial aid to specific performance metrics. I DON’T however think that some determination of “value” is going to prove viable. Too many variables and too much subjectivity for this to stand alone.

5) Making college more affordable is the goal that we should be focused on, NOT how can we make it as difficult as possible for the for-profit sector to participate, which is the real agenda here. Those who don’t deliver promised outcomes should not benefit from their lack of performance. However, this needs to also be true for non profits, like my own institution, as well as for the for profits. On this, I think there is alignment. What will be a real wake-up call will be to see how many of the latter have very low graduation rates.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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