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Hardly anybody in higher education seems to like the Obama administration's proposed ratings system. But college leaders are certainly not united in their views about the appropriate role for the federal government in holding institutions accountable.

In the eight months since the president first announced his ratings idea, colleges of all sorts have questioned -- if not blasted -- the proposal. Private colleges have strongly urged the administration to reconsider its plan and are rallying members of Congress to stop it. The president’s own former homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, now the president of the University of California system, has criticized the ratings proposal. For-profit colleges, whose more immediate concerns lie with the administration’s gainful employment regulations, have also criticized the plan. And community colleges have said they’re concerned a ratings system could curtail access to higher education for underprivileged populations.

As administration officials prepare for a fall release of a ratings framework, few college leaders are cheering them on. But for all that apparent unity, the various sectors of higher education have taken sometimes strikingly different positions on some of the questions raised by the plan, in ways that are likely to put them at odds with each other in the coming months.

Changes to Federal Student Aid

One such contrast between different types of institutions is over the question of whether the federal government should change how it doles out roughly $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants for college, directly linking it to how well institutions perform on a set of criteria.

Some public universities have said that while they’re concerned that a ratings system would be the wrong mechanism for allocating federal loans and grants, they do support the government's coming up with a new way to distribute that money based on how well institutions perform.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities earlier this year proposed an “alternative plan” to the Obama ratings proposal that calls for linking institutions’ receipt of federal student aid to how well they graduate students who can successfully repay their loans and find employment (or enroll in advanced education) -- as long as those calculations are adjusted based on the relative levels of preparedness of a college’s student body.

M. Peter McPherson, the group’s president, said that the proposal “responds to an important part of what the president is talking about but is a lot simpler, more straightforward and more acceptable” to his member universities.

“There’s clearly a need for some public accountability for institutions that aren’t serving students well,” he said, noting that public universities are accustomed to such political scrutiny by the state lawmakers who oversee them.  

“We tell automobile companies to recall unsafe cars. Why would we not look at institutions that don’t graduate many students and whose students can’t pay back the debt?” McPherson said. “Those institutions aren’t really safe. How many there are, we don’t have the data. But we know there are some. I assume that is part of what the president is after, and I think that’s right.”

While the APLU represents many flagship universities that are selective in their admissions, state colleges and public open-access institutions tend to enroll large populations of students who may be less prepared. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents many such institutions, has not endorsed the APLU proposal, but notes that its institutions do believe that there is a role for more accountability given the billions of dollars that flow to their campuses.  

“The public sector is much more receptive to the notion that the federal government may get a little more prescriptive with regard to the outcomes it pays for,” said Barmak Nassirian, the group’s director of federal relations and policy analysis. “It doesn’t offend our members.”

“We are not unaccustomed to political demands for simple answers to the question of, ‘What you do for all the money we give you?’ " he added. “We kind of recognize the legitimacy of that question.”

Although taxpayers may be entitled to demand answers to those questions, Nassirian said, “that doesn’t mean you want to put politicians in the business of making fundamental quality judgment calls.”

Among the concerns, Nassirian said, are the difficulty of actually adjusting for student-body inputs and creating nuanced accountability systems. He said that measuring student loan repayment may be one of the more appropriate metrics for the government to use in evaluating colleges’ performance because, at a minimum, taxpayers might reasonably expect that students pay back their federal loans.

Private colleges have joined with their public counterparts in their skepticism of the Obama ratings proposal. But the notion, embraced by the APLU’s proposal, that federal student aid dollars should be based on institutional performance is anathema to most private institutions.

David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said that his group opposes such a shift in the distribution of federal aid because it would harm student choice. Private colleges firmly believe that federal student aid should be, in effect, a voucher for students to use at the college that is best for them, he said.

“Student aid, when conceived in the early stages of Title IV, very clearly was designed to respond to the needs of the student and to follow the student, not be tied to the institution,” Warren said, referring to the numbered section of the Higher Education Act that authorizes student loans and grants. “We think that is a wise model, and we think this change would fundamentally and dramatically alter the way in which dollars are available to needy students.”

Private colleges’ opposition to changing how federal student aid is allocated does not mean they don’t embrace the underlying accountability concerns, Warren said.

 “We’ve been always been entirely open to asking the question of how well an institution can perform,” he said.

States, accreditors and the Education Department all have processes that hold institutions accountable, Warren said.

 “All of those have an effect,” he said. He questioned whether the department was doing enough in its front-end review of colleges that want to be eligible to participate in the federal student aid programs.

The impetus behind the ratings system, though, is that that current system is not structured in a way that provides enough accountability for colleges. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in defending the ratings proposal, has repeatedly railed against the “status quo,” saying that taxpayers know far too little about what becomes of the billions of dollars they invest in higher education each year.

The Obama administration isn’t the only voice calling for the federal government to attach new requirements to how student loans and grants flow to colleges and universities.

Even if the ratings plan is defeated, there is plenty of other enthusiasm in Washington for new legislation, most likely as part of the Higher Education Act, which is due to be renewed in the next year or two. A pair of Senate Democrats has introduced legislation to link student aid to similar outcomes-based standards. Several other Democrats have called for colleges to pay the government a penalty if too many of their students default on federal loans. And the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, earlier this year released a proposal that would tie student aid dollars to a college’s rating on a bronze-silver-gold scale.

Divide Over Data

Much of the debate over the Obama administration’s ratings proposal has centered around whether the federal government has good enough data on which to judge colleges in the first place.

The plan has renewed debate over a federal database to track students as they move through higher education and into the workforce, providing more robust information about graduation rates and salary information.

While colleges and universities have been nearly unanimous in their criticism of the quality of current federal data on which the Obama administration is predicating its ratings system, higher education is divided on whether a student-unit record system should be used to alleviate that data challenge.

Groups representing public institutions -- the APLU, AASCU, and the American Association of Community Colleges -- have all come out in favor of such a system. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has long been a vocal opponent of a student-unit database, which it says would raise privacy concerns.

The Obama administration has said that while the data may not be perfect, officials will be moving forwarding with a rating system using the data to which they currently have access.

Jamienne S. Studley, the deputy under secretary of education, who has been spearheading the ratings proposal, said in a blog post earlier this month that the administration is on track to produce a draft ratings system by the fall. 

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