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Listening Tour on College Ratings

October 30, 2013

The Obama administration will convene hearings at college campuses across the country next month to gather public input on its controversial proposal to create a federal college ratings system, the Education Department will formally announce Wednesday.

As the administration moves ahead with developing the specific criteria for the rating system, officials will travel to four campuses next month to solicit feedback at public forums.

The hearings will kick off next Wednesday in Los Angeles at California State University’s Dominguez Hills campus and will continue through November with forums scheduled at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.; the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls; and Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. (An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly stated, based on an Education Department notice, the George Mason University campus where the forum will take place. It is Fairfax, not Arlington, a university official said.)

“Forum participants are welcome to share their views on measuring value and affordability, and in particular on the metrics and weighting of the ratings system,” the Education Department said in a notice to be published in Wednesday’s Federal Register. Public comments, at least for the first hearing, will be limited to five minutes per person, according to a department blog post.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to hold a news conference Wednesday to discuss the administration’s “new plans to engage the public” on the president’s most ambitious higher education policy proposal thus far.

Administration officials and Education Department leaders have already met with some higher education stakeholders to discuss the ratings, including college presidents and student advocacy groups.

Among the possible metrics that officials have said are on the table are the proportion of students receiving Pell grants; the average amount of tuition, scholarships and loan debt; graduation and transfer rates; the salaries of graduates; and the extent to which graduates pursue advanced degrees.

The debate over choosing metrics for a rating system is likely to focus on the availability and quality of data as much as it is about picking which measures to include and how to weight them.

Already the administration has sparred with the higher education lobby over the quality of data it will use in the ratings system. The ban on a federal database to track student outcomes, supported by some traditional higher education groups (particularly private ones), as well as the shortcomings of federal graduation rates, which track only first-time, full-time students, are likely to be focal points. Deciding when and with what data to measure graduates’ earnings is also expected to be contentious.

Higher education groups were largely muted in their initial response to ratings system plan when the Obama administration rolled it out in late August. But since then, college and university presidents have begun to step up their opposition to certain elements of the plan and to poke holes in the validity of some of the metrics the administration has proposed. On Monday, for instance, Cornell University President David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler, the institution's vice president for university relations, echoed those concerns in a Forbes column. 

"The intentions are admirable and the goal is worthy," they wrote of the proposed ratings system, "In our judgment, however, some of the criteria for determining college value are flawed," such as relying on earnings data and comparing graduation rates across diverse student populations. 

College and university leaders have also expressed concerns about how the administration would group their institutions in order to make the “apples-to-apples” comparisons among that Duncan has pledged the ratings system would achieve.

Duncan has said he wants to produce a draft of the metrics in about a year and have a final ratings system by December 2014. The administration has said its goal is to launch a rating system in the 2015 academic year and persuade Congress to link that system to federal student aid dollars by 2018.
 

 

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