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Education Department officials kicked off a series of public hearings on the Obama administration's proposed college ratings system on Wednesday at the California State University's Dominguez Hills campus.

Photo courtesy of CSU Dominguez Hills

A federal college ratings system has the potential to curb access to higher education for disadvantaged minority and low-income students, several college leaders and student advocates told U.S. Education Department officials on Wednesday.

Dozens of students, faculty members, administrators, parents and advocacy groups testified at a daylong hearing at California State University’s Dominguez Hills campus. The event kicked off a series of four public forums that the Education Department is holding this month to solicit feedback on how to develop a federal college ratings system, President Obama's top higher education priority.

As might be expected at a forum open to the public, the comments were wide-ranging and many touched on broad themes about college affordability. Several speakers lamented the decline in state funding for public education. Students relayed personal anecdotes about their struggles with large amounts of student loan debt. Several faculty members said they were concerned that a ratings system would be reductive and would not take into account the full value of a college education.

One central concern for many of the speakers, however, was the extent to which a ratings plan will help or harm students at community colleges and other institutions that serve disadvantaged populations.

Thomas Fallo, the superintendent/president of El Camino Community College District, which serves 25,000 students in the Los Angeles area, said he was concerned that a ratings system would not reflect the realities of how students enroll at his institution.  

“Students usually select a community college based on location and convenience” not based on any outside rating or ranking system, he said. Instead of developing an entirely new system of metrics at the federal level, he suggested that the Education Department defer to state-based performance models to evaluate colleges.

Several advocacy groups, while praising the administration’s goals, cautioned that a poorly crafted ratings system could harm low-income students’ access to higher education.

Audrey Dow, community affairs director at Campaign for College Opportunity, echoed those remarks. She expressed concern that underprivileged students would be denied access to education if they were to live in a community where local colleges performed poorly in the ratings system and they therefore received less federal aid. The administration plans to ultimately persuade Congress to link its rating system to federal funding starting in 2018.  

She also urged the administration to couple a ratings system with “significant outreach” to help underprivileged students understand and properly use the data.

David Levitus, the California deputy director of Young Invincibles , a student advocacy group, cautioned against ratings metrics that reduce incentives for institutions to enroll disadvantaged students. He said a recent move to performance-based funding in Ohio largely punished institutions that enroll low-income students.

Levitius also questioned the quality of existing data and urged the administration to work with Congress on changing the limitations on what data the federal government is allowed to collect from colleges, alluding to the federal ban on a student-unit record system

The federal officials at the forum did not respond to comments but said they planned to use the feedback they gather at the public meetings across the country to inform the metrics for rating colleges. The department expects to release a draft version of the ratings system by this spring.  

Addressing the concerns about access to low-income students generally, Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley reiterated at the end of the hearing that the department is seeking, in its ratings system, to compare only institutions that have like missions and serve similar populations.

“We take very seriously” the concerns about access for low-income students, she said, adding that the department wants to take metrics such as the percentage of Pell Grant recipients into account in the ratings. 

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