President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)

(Update: Adding statement from Education Department)

Fifty presidents of public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in Virginia have signed a letter (see text below) to Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressing “serious reservations” about the Obama administration’s “misguided” development of a school rating system that could include data such as how much students earn after graduation.  What will be called the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System is intended to be used in the process of determining which institutions deserve federal student aid (though congressional approval will be needed for this step).

President Obama and Duncan announced the plan last year, arguing that institutions of higher education need to be more accountable to the public about student outcomes. Critics countered by saying that such a rating system would be arbitrary and would unfairly favor schools that  focus on programs in which graduates earn high salaries. They also say that the U.S. government already publishes extensive data on schools.

The 50 presidents of Virginia institutions of higher education who signed the letter — including the leaders of the University of Virginia, College of William & Mary and George Mason  University — said that while they applaud Obama’s efforts to make higher education more affordable, a federal ratings system would wind up limiting the amount of financial aid that many poor students can receive. They also said that using graduation rates as currently determined by schools would be unfair because they are widely believed to be flawed.

The letter was addressed to Duncan as well as Virginia’s congressional delegation.

The system is now under development — with authorities determining which data points to include — and is supposed to be ready before the 2015-16 school year. The Education Department asked for public comments about the plan last year, and you can see them here. In a regulatory document, the department explained its rationale for developing the system this way:

The Department provides over $150 billion each year in student financial aid, while States collectively invest over $70 billion in public colleges and universities. Almost all of these resources are allocated based on the number of students who enroll, not the number of students who earn degrees, how much students learn, or the return on investment to the students and society for the cost of their degrees. … The ratings will be based upon such measures as:

• Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
• Affordability, such as average cost of attendance, scholarships, and student loan debt; and
• Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, including those for Pell grant recipients, graduate earnings, and advanced degree attainment of graduates.

The Virginia presidents joined a host of other school leaders from around the country who have protested the plan, including Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system who had been  Obama’s U.S. homeland security secretary, who said last December that she is “deeply skeptical that there are criteria that can be developed that are in the end meaningful.”

Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt issued this comment about the letter:

I noticed you wrote about the letter from the Virginia college presidents. Here is a statement from me (Dorie Nolt, no Turner necessary) on it:

“We have received the letter and look forward to responding. 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. In an effort to build this system thoughtfully and wisely, we are listening actively to recommendations and concerns, which includes national listening tour of 80-plus 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 and we look forward to delivering a proposal that will help more Americans attain a college education.”

She also said there was more information about the development of the rating system on the Education Department website here.

Here’s the letter:

va letter 3va letter 4