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The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities on Wednesday took issue with certain parts of the Obama administration's proposed college ratings system -- but recommended an alternative approach that embraces some of its key principles, including linking colleges' performance to how much student aid money they receive. 

While praising the goals of the Obama administration's rating system, the group's president, Peter McPherson, said in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan that the ratings system would produce “misleading information and perhaps create perverse incentives.”

Instead of developing ratings, McPherson said, the Education Department should expand the types of information it provides to consumers on its College Scorecard. He suggested four key metrics: graduation rates (as measured by the voluntary system that APLU developed with other higher education groups rather than the current federal data that captures only full-time students attending college for the first time); loan repayment and default rates; average net price by income; and the rate at which graduates are employed or pursue advanced degrees.

The APLU also said it supports linking colleges’ performance in three of those four areas--graduation rates, loan repayment and default rates, and employment/enrollment in advanced education--to how much federal student aid money they can receive. (An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly stated that the APLU supported tying federal student aid to all four metrics; in fact, it does not support using the average net price figure for such purpose.)

“There should be consequences for the very bad performers and rewards for excellent performers,” the group writes in its 10-page list of recommendations on the ratings plan. 

But, McPherson said, the government needs to first weight those metrics with a “student readiness index” to enable fair comparisons between colleges that serve different populations of students. By contrast, he said, the Obama administration’s current plan to group colleges into “peer groups” in a ratings system would be extremely difficult not provide students with appropriate information to compare colleges. 

After adjusting for the type of students that a college serves, McPherson said his organization “could envision institutions then being placed into something as simple as three performance tiers.” Colleges in the bottom tier would have to partially or fully withdraw from federal student aid programs, he said, whereas top-tier institutions could be rewarded with additional federal funds, such as the Pell bonus described in the Obama plan.

The APLU's recommendations on the college ratings system are likely to put its public university members at odds with some other sectors of higher education. The linking of large amounts of federal aid to college performance on any metrics has been considered by some in higher education as a line not to be crossed. Private college presidents and their representatives in Washington, in particular, have said they strongly believe that federal student aid should follow a student wherever he or she chooses to attend college.

The American Council of Education has also said that it would "be vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics, which could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help.”

Notably, however, the APLU does continue to share the concern of many other higher education groups in rejecting the use of graduates' earnings data by the government for either either informational or evaluative purposes. It says there are "reasonable" concerns with using earnings data, but recommends using employment rates that measure graduates "for some time" after graduation.

The Education Department is currently soliciting feedback on how it should develop a college ratings system. Officials will also hold a public “technical symposium” on the ratings plan on February 20. 



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