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Most presidents doubt Obama's plan to promote affordable higher education

Dubious of Obama Plan
December 16, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Most college presidents doubt that President Obama's plan to promote affordable higher education will be effective, or that it will lead students to make better informed choices. Further, they expect that the wealthiest colleges and universities will be most successful in the ratings system Obama has proposed.

Those are the findings of a poll by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed of American college and university presidents, which attracted responses from 675 of them. Gallup has a 95 percent confidence level that the margin of error is plus/minus 3.8 percentage points. The presidents were given complete anonymity so they could answer without regard to the politics of opposing a plan that has become a top priority for the Obama administration.

The plan -- proposed in August -- would, among other things, create a new rating system for colleges in which they would be evaluated based on various outcomes (such as graduation rates and graduate earnings), on affordability and on access (measures such as the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants). Then the plan would link student aid to these ratings, such that students who enroll at high-performing colleges would receive larger Pell Grants and more favorable rates on student loans. (Some parts of the plan, such as the changes in the Pell program, would require Congressional approval.)

Obama administration officials have said that the colleges would be compared to institutions with similar missions. But details on how the system would work have yet to be fully developed or released.

The skepticism of the plan among presidents is striking given how many of them say that they appreciate the way Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of higher education. Indeed, in a 2012 survey of presidents, Inside Higher Ed found that nearly two-thirds of them planned to vote for the president's re-election -- and that percentage would have been even higher except for strong opposition from presidents of for-profit institutions.

The lack of enthusiasm for the president's plan is evident in a series of questions. Only 2 percent of presidents said that the plan will be "very effective" at making higher education affordable, only 19 percent think it will have a positive impact on their institution, and majorities question the use of some of the criteria in the plan.

The presidents generally answered on a four- or five-point scale, and also had a "don't know" option, which is why these figures don't always add to 100 percent. Here are some of the answers to general questions:

How effective will President Obama's plan to make college more affordable be?

Do you agree or disagree that students will use the new information provided by the Department of Education to make informed decisions in selecting higher education institutions?

  • Strongly agree: 2 percent
  • Agree: 11 percent
  • In the middle: 27 percent
  • Disagree: 34 percent
  • Strongly disagree: 22 percent

Do you agree or disagree that the president's strategy to link federal financial aid to an institution's performance on the new rating system is a good idea?

  • Strongly agree: 3 percent
  • Agree: 13 percent
  • In the middle: 30 percent
  • Disagree: 30 percent
  • Strongly disagree: 35 percent

In your opinion, will President Obama's plan to make college more affordable have a positive effect on your institution?

  • Don't know: 31 percent
  • Yes: 19 percent
  • No: 50 percent

The presidents were also asked about the appropriateness of any rating system including certain factors.

Factor 5 (strongly agree) 4 3 2 1 (strongly disagree)
Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants 9% 17% 22% 23% 27%
Institution's average tuition cost 9% 19% 23% 25% 24%
Total scholarships institution awards to students 3% 18% 28% 26% 23%
Average student debt 8% 23% 26% 24% 19%
Graduation rates 18% 37% 23% 14% 8%
Advanced degrees earned by graduates 6% 17% 23% 21% 21%
Post-graduation earnings of graduates 6% 19% 25% 23% 24%

With the exception of graduation rates, college presidents are more skeptical than supportive of all of these potential parts of a formula for rating colleges. And measures that are frequently cited by politicians (such as the percentage of Pell Grant students enrolled) did not attract much support as criteria for a rating system.

One of the most hotly debated potential measures is the post-graduation earnings average of graduates. Liberal arts college presidents have been particularly vocal in questioning the measure, arguing that while they educate their students for leadership positions in society, they focus on learning for a lifetime, not for the first job after college. At the same time, many publications regularly rank colleges by graduates' income, and plenty of colleges boast about those results.

The new poll suggests that college presidents believe in taking the long view in measuring post-graduation income.

College Presidents on Appropriate Time Frame for Measuring Post-Graduation Earnings

Appropriate Time Frame Percentage
1-3 years 11%
4-6 years 35%
7-9 years 16%
10-12 years 19%
13-15 years 2%
More than 15 years 9%
Don't know 10%

One of the criticisms of the Obama plan from the start is that it would favor the wealthiest institutions, which tend to attract the best-prepared students (and so have high graduation rates), enroll students who are well-connected (which, combined with their good preparation, lands them good jobs) and have the endowments to support generous financial aid packages. Fifty-two percent of presidents agree or strongly agree that wealthier institutions will fare best under the Obama ratings.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said that the results were consistent with what she is hearing from college presidents, which is a lot of concern "about unintended consequences that may come from a well-intentioned set of metrics." She stressed that most college presidents are "fully aligned with President Obama's ultimate goals -- expanding access and making college more affordable."

But she said that there are doubts among many presidents both about the idea that these data will help students, and that ratings can be done correctly. She noted that most colleges already share considerable data -- often covering information similar to what President Obama says should go into ratings. "But there's not much evidence that the array of key data metrics that most institutions routinely post have made a huge difference," she said.

At the same time, she said she worries about the impact of ratings. If one looks at existing rankings systems, most college leaders "are skeptical but we pay a lot of attention to them." Broad said that she feared a new ratings system might have create the wrong incentives. "There's a real concern that some of the measures might cause institutions to alter their admissions and aid awarding in ways that don't advance access to low-income college students," Broad said.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the college ratings proposal Friday in a meeting with reporters -- and said he wasn't surprised that college leaders have been critical.  “This is a fundamental change,” Duncan said. “Some people embrace that and some people are more wary or scared. I think skepticism is a good thing. It’s warranted. This is hard stuff.”

Duncan reiterated the administration’s argument that the federal government should demand a focus on student outcomes in exchange for the $150 billion each year it spends on grants and loans for college. He also said that the rating system was necessary to resolve a “huge inefficiency in the marketplace” by providing students and families with more information in choosing colleges. “Yes, I have lots of sympathy for universities but we need to listen to real students and real parents and I think we have a huge obligation to do a much better job by them than we’re doing today,” he said. “Does anyone think parents and young people have enough information today to make really thoughtful, informed choices, or that the system is as easy to navigate as it should be?”

He added that the department had not yet decided whether the rating system would assign a singular, composite rating to colleges or, alternatively, create “three or four or five different buckets” of metrics with different scores for each area.

Jamienne Studley, deputy under secretary of education, said that the department is seeking to develop a “nuanced and enriched idea of how you get value from education.” Studley said that officials were working particularly hard on how to align colleges into peer groups for comparison in the rating system and how to best incorporate employment and salary information into the ratings.

Michael Stratford contributed to this article.

 

 

 

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