Duncan defends Obama’s college-rating plan; Napolitano had voiced skepticism about idea

December 13, 2013

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Friday defended a federal initiative to begin rating colleges on value and performance, one week after a former peer in President Obama’s Cabinet, who now heads a major university system, expressed skepticism.

“Helping young people and families have more information and make better choices, I think those are goals that would be embraced universally,” Duncan told reporters in a progress report on the development of a college rating system that Obama had announced in August.

Duncan added: “Does anyone think we should continue to invest $150 billion a year with no sense of outcomes? Does anyone think parents and young people have enough information today to make really thoughtful, informed choices, or that the system is as easy to navigate as it should be?”

Duncan has been canvassing higher-education leaders about the initiative for several weeks. The Education Department plans to circulate a draft proposal by spring, then put a system into effect in 2015. Officials say publishing federal ratings would not require congressional approval.

On Dec. 6, former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, who became president of the University of California system in September, told The Washington Post that it would be difficult to find meaningful ways to measure and compare U.S. colleges and universities.

“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,” Napolitano 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.

Napolitano said she favors accountability, but that the rating system “may not be the right way to do it.”

Duncan, asked about her remarks, said: “I think Janet’s super-smart. I have tremendous respect for her. . . . I’ll be out in California at some point. Look forward hopefully to spending some time and picking her brain on this.”

Many educators fear the government will develop a simplistic format that fails to take into account the diverse missions of higher education.

Asked whether the plan would assign a “composite” rating for a given school, Duncan said he could see pros and cons to having a composite score or to having “three or four or five buckets” for analytical purposes, with different scores for each.

“If it’s overly complicated, you add to the noise, not to the clarity,” Duncan said. “So we’re trying to come up with something that is simple and meaningful and adds greater transparency.”

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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