Virginia college presidents skeptical of Obama plan to rate colleges

Fifty higher-education leaders from Virginia are voicing skepticism about an Obama administration plan to rate colleges on measures of access and value and link those ratings to federal aid.

Presidents of schools ranging from the public University of Virginia to the private Liberty University put their names on an unusual joint letter sent July 22 to the state’s congressional delegation as well as to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

The letter embraced goals President Obama stressed when he announced the plan in August 2013 to make college more affordable and accessible.

“In addition, we support accountability and efforts to improve our work in this area,” the college presidents wrote. “However, we have serious reservations about the proposed college rating system.”

Education Department officials are expected to circulate a draft system in the fall. Many details are still to be determined.

Last year, the White House said new ratings would be published before school starts in 2015. Whether the administration can meet that timetable is unclear because of the complexity of the project and strong pushback from the higher-ed world.

The ratings, according to the White House, will be based on such factors as the percentage of students from families with income low enough to qualify for Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships and loan debt; graduation rates and transfer rates; earnings of graduates; and the number of advanced degrees obtained by those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

The administration says it can publish such ratings without congressional approval. Another part of the initiative — rewarding highly rated schools with more student aid — would require legislation.

The Virginia college leaders, from the Virginia Council of Presidents in the public sector and the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, predicted “negative unintended consequences” from the ratings. They said schools would be under pressure to enroll higher-income students as a tactic to raise graduation rates.

They also said a ratings system that puts substantial weight on graduate earnings would be flawed.

“Students who choose public service or non-profit sector employment with lower starting salaries than their peers should not be considered failures, and their higher education institution should not be penalized for those choices,” they wrote.

Denise Horn, an Education Department spokeswoman, said this week that officials have received the letter. “As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and assure that students graduate with an education of real value, which is the goal of the College Rating System,” Horn said. She said the department has gathered input on ratings through more than 80 meetings with 4,000 participants.

“We hear over and over — from students and families, college presidents and high school counselors, low-income students, business people and researchers — that, done right, a ratings system will push innovations and systems changes that will benefit students,” Horn said, “and we look forward to delivering a proposal that will help more Americans attain a college education.”

Supporters say Obama’s initiative will bring an overdue measure of accountability to higher education in an era of ever-rising tuition. Critics say the government should leave the college rating business to magazines.

The Virginia letter was signed by Richard V. Hurley, president of the University of Mary Washington, and Michael C. Maxey, president of Roanoke College, on behalf of the two councils. The councils represent most of the state’s higher-ed leaders, except those from for-profit schools.

Listed after their signatures were the names of dozens of presidents who supported the letter, including Teresa A. Sullivan of U-Va., Jerry L. Falwell Jr. of Liberty, and the leaders of Virginia Tech, Washington and Lee University, James Madison University and the College of William and Mary.

Also listed as being in support of the letter was George Mason University President Angel Cabrera. For him, the letter seemed to signal a shift. Last year, Cab­rera voiced enthusiasm about Obama’s plans.

“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,” Cab­rera told The Washington Post in August 2013. “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.”

Cabrera added: “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.”

Michael Sandler, a George Mason spokesman, said Tuesday that Cabrera still supports Obama’s push for accountability. Sandler said the letter “recognizes the merits of the president’s initiative while laying out some important areas of concern and offering suggestions for effective implementation. The stakes are high, and we need to make sure we explore any potentially negative side-effects while we still can.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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