Janet Napolitano speaks to journalists at The Washington Post on Friday. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Former U.S. homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, two months into her new job as president of the University of California system, expressed skepticism Friday about the workability of a college rating system the Obama administration is developing.

Napolitano’s comments echoed what other higher education leaders have said since President Obama announced in August that the federal government intends by fall 2015 to start rating colleges on several measures, such as average tuition, the share of low-income students they enroll and their effectiveness in ensuring that students graduate without too much debt. The initiative reflects a belief that heightened accountability would yield more affordability.

Napolitano’s reaction is especially significant because she was a member of Obama’s Cabinet and now leads a 10-university system that is a major force among public research institutions. Napolitano said it would be difficult to find meaningful ways to measure and compare colleges and universities across America.

“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 in an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Post. “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.”

An Education Department spokesman had no comment.

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)

Other higher education leaders have raised questions about federal ratings as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has begun outreach to develop a plan. The government already collects and publishes voluminous data about colleges. But federal ratings would break new ground, inserting Washington into the college-value debate alongside various independent Web sites and magazines.

Asked whether her comments and those of other college presidents could be construed as an effort to avoid accountability, Napolitano said: “No, that’s not right. No, no, no, no, no. I’m saying we should be accountable. That rating system may not be the right way to do it. Sure, we’re accountable. We get public money. . . . We’re accountable to the legislature, to the people, to the federal government.”

With 10 campuses, from the flagship in Berkeley to the newest in Merced, the University of California is an education and research powerhouse. Napolitano, since Sept. 30, has overseen a system that includes more than 234,000 students and 208,000 faculty and staff, with an annual budget of more than $24 billion. She noted that UC enrolls 72,500 low-income students, nearly eight times the number at all Ivy League schools combined.

Napolitano said the system has weathered recent funding cutbacks that led to significant tuition increases and spending cuts. But she sounded upbeat about its condition. She said tuition is being frozen to help keep UC affordable.

“It didn’t escape unscarred,” she said, “but the bones of the system remain intact.”

Like other university presidents, Napolitano said she is worried about the federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which reduced funding for research significantly this year. If it continues, she said, “we’re looking at another hit.” Napolitano said she has raised the issue with Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).