President Obama’s pledge to begin federal ratings of colleges by 2015 has touched off widespread debate in academia, exposing a divide that can be seen in contrasting reactions from the leader of a small private college in Maryland and the head of the state’s flagship public university.

University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh endorses the plan Obama announced Aug. 22 to rate colleges on the value they deliver for students and link federal student aid to those findings. “At stake is whether higher education remains the great equalizer of conditions in our democracy,” said the leader of the 37,200-
student university in College Park.

Hood College President Ronald Volpe opposes federal ratings. “They’re essentially saying where you should go to school and what you should study and major in,” said the leader of the 2,400-student private college in Frederick. “I just think it’s too much heavy-handed government.”

The private marketplace, Volpe said, is well equipped to rate colleges. Although Hood’s annual tuition and fees total about $33,000, many students receive discounts. “We are an academic enterprise,” he said. “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.”

An informal Washington Post survey of college and university presidents in the Washington region and elsewhere found a public-private divide on the question of federal ratings. Public institutions, long accustomed to government oversight and disclosure of their records, seem, in general, more open to new accountability measures than private ones.

But some offered counterintuitive views. There were public university presidents who expressed caution about federal ratings. Carol Quillen, president of the private Davidson College in North Carolina, said she was open to the idea — “if done thoughtfully.”

Several university presidents avoided taking sides, perhaps mindful of political pitfalls on an issue that touches deep nerves among families struggling with tuition bills.

“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,” Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia said without answering whether he supported or opposed federal ratings.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp said much the same in a statement to the campus student newspaper, the GW Hatchet. A spokeswoman for American University President Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin said Kerwin was unavailable to comment.

Obama aims to use executive authority to begin rating colleges by the fall of 2015 on criteria such as average tuition, scholarships and loan debt; the share of students receiving need-based Pell grants; graduation and transfer rates; graduate earnings; and the number of graduates who obtain advanced degrees. Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to consult with colleges on the design of the ratings.

A second piece of the plan requires legislation. By 2018, if Congress approves, the government would base student aid in part on how colleges perform on the federal ratings. That could translate to larger Pell grants or more favorable federal loans for students at highly rated colleges.

All of this would break new ground. For years, the government has compiled data on colleges but generally left the field of ratings to magazines and analysts. One exception is a federal Web site that sorts colleges by sector, tuition and net price. This year, the government also launched a College Scorecard.

Among college presidents, some public-sector leaders are cheerleaders of the Obama plan.

“While no metric is perfect, the ones laid out by the president are a good set,” said Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University. “These measures will help highlight the value that institutions provide, in a way that several popular media rankings don’t.”

Loh said financial consequences are essential.

“Without the linkage, the federal rating system is toothless,” the U-Md. president said. “If the purpose is to change institutional behavior, there must be incentives and disincentives to bring about that change.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said: “There are steps that can be taken to encourage universities to be more accountable that are less drastic than taking federal financial aid away. When institutions are struggling to graduate students, the federal government could give support to the states and institutions to help them develop strategies and practices to ensure that more students succeed.”

W. Taylor Reveley III, president of the College of William and Mary, said he was withholding judgment. “We need to see how the rating system will work — how ‘high performing’ colleges and universities will be defined,” he said.

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, asked whether she supports federal ratings, said: “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.”

Many in the private sector are skeptics.

“I would be very cautious about creating some sort of composite ‘value’ rating of colleges and universities,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. “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.”

Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College, said concepts of “value” are open to interpretation. “The thought that the standard — and thus the rankings — might change from one administration to another is horrifying,” he said.

Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University, said, “The search for easy metrics will lead to measuring what can easily be measured, not what is of real value.”

Several leaders warned that the government must take into account the vast array of institutions that offer degrees, which will pose a challenge in creating a rating system.

“Higher education is complex and serves many different important social, economic and personal purposes,” said Sidney A. Ribeau, president of Howard University. “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.”