Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said: “This is a slippery slope, and one that ends with the private sector inevitably giving up more of its freedom to innovate and take risks. The U.S. did not create the best higher education system in the world by using standards set by Washington bureaucrats.”
Much of Obama’s plan would require legislation, including a proposal to spend $1 billion to spur state overhauls of higher education that is certain to draw stiff Republican opposition. Any measure to restructure student aid will face close scrutiny from both parties.
But officials said they plan to use Obama’s executive authority to forge ahead with new federal ratings, consulting with colleges as they craft metrics. The effort will build on a “college scorecard” Obama launched this year.
The influential U.S. News & World Report college rankings have shown that the very act of publishing such analyses often has a profound effect as colleges adjust their admissions and financial policies in an effort to stand out from the crowd. Critics say that ratings are often based on flawed data.
If Obama succeeds in pointing out schools that have questionable performance on graduation rates and other measures, “he’s really pointing the finger at a third to a half of the higher education system in the country,” said Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News. “It’s pretty bold.”
Over the past decade, as public elementary and secondary schools have been held responsible for improving test scores under the No Child Left Behind law, analysts have wondered whether the government would use the same strategy to reshape higher education.
With a powerful lobby in Washington, colleges have so far beat back such efforts, contending that no accountability system can effectively rate performance for 5,000 degree-granting schools that encompass two-year community colleges; the Ivy League; research universities; regional state schools; private, nonprofit liberal arts colleges; and for-profit institutions.
Exactly how to compare colleges and judge outcomes is a matter of fierce debate within academia. Many colleges can’t even agree on which schools are their peers. There are major questions about how to calculate graduation rates and measure the earnings potential of graduates.
“The devil is in the details. How do you define value?” asked Sarah L. Flanagan, vice president for government relations for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. She wondered if some colleges would be penalized under a ratings system that did not take into account the modest salaries of graduates entering public service, religious ministries or careers in the arts.
Amy Laitinen, an analyst with the New America Foundation who served in the Obama Education Department, said possible flaws in a federal rating system are outweighed by the public interest in containing prices. “What we have now is not working,” she said. “The idea that we would keep the status quo because the alternative is less than perfect is crazy.”
Some education leaders say colleges must become more transparent. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is spearheading a campaign this year to publish more graduation data.
“We also strongly support President Obama’s efforts to link federal student aid to student progress and degree completion rates,” APLU President Peter McPherson said in a statement.
Obama’s visit to Buffalo had a distinct campaign feel. The president, wearing a blazer and no necktie, sought to rally students and educators around his plan with a 38-minute address.
On Friday, he will have a town-hall-style event at Binghamton University in New York and visit Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa.
In Buffalo, Obama noted that he and his wife, Michelle, took out student loans to attend college and law school and did not pay them off until they were in their 40s. But he lamented that, on average, students today have far more loans than he had, saying the average college student graduates with more than $26,000 in debt.
Obama’s plan includes measures to ensure that students receiving federal aid complete their courses each semester before receiving the next semester’s grants.
“We need to make sure that if you’re getting financial aid, you’re doing your part to make progress toward a college degree,” Obama said.
Rucker reported from Buffalo.