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By Paul Bradley  /  
2013 September 2 - 12:00 am

Obama’s Call For College Ratings Creates Concern

President Obama’s bus tour to promote his plan to remake American higher education all but obscured a startling report on college costs that was released earlier in the week.

That report, from the National Center for Education Statistics, said that in 2011-12, 71 percent of all undergraduate students needed some form of financial aid to attend college, an all-time record. Among undergraduates who received aid, the average total amount was $10,800.

Fifty-seven percent of all undergraduates received federal student aid; 41 percent of all undergraduates received federal Pell Grants.

If ever there was proof that urgent steps are needed to stem the ballooning cost of attending, it could be found in those numbers.

So it was no surprise that Obama seized on the issue of college affordability, taking a two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania to tout a sweeping plan to create a new government rating system for colleges that would judge schools on their affordability and outcomes and be used to allocate federal financial aid.

Speaking to a crowd of 7,000 at the University Of Buffalo, the president argued that with the nation’s economy still shaky, and students facing increasing global competition, making college affordable is “an economic imperative.”

“Higher education cannot be a luxury,” Obama said. “Every American family should be able to get it.”

Obama said that he expected political pushback on his plan, and it began almost immediately. Republicans on Capitol Hill weighed in quickly with criticism of the plan as federal government overreach.

“Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He cast the proposal as government overreach and suggested a state-by-state approach would be preferable.

But concern about the president’s plan extended beyond Capitol Hill. In a written statement, Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, said the government must be careful when tinkering with the financial aid system, which has opened the doors to higher education for millions of community college students.

“The federal student financial aid programs are a tremendous success,” Bumphus said in a written statement. “Millions of students have attended and succeeded at community college because of them. While federal aid programs should be modified to reflect changes within higher education and the broader society, they are fundamentally sound.”

Bumphus was also wary of the federal government creating a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime that could usurp local control.

“First and foremost, community colleges are local entities, albeit serving a broader national purpose. Federal policy should augment and not supplant state and local policy,” he said.

The AACC, like other community college organizations, steadfastly opposes rating systems, believing that the colleges’ missions are so diverse that they can’t be adequately compared. How can a college in rural Nebraska be compared to one in urban Manhattan?

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, said, “The key to success for the president’s plan will be working with states to ensure that the right data and metrics are used to measure outcomes.”

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council of Education, said the group opposes tying funding to national rankings. Obama said he wants them in place by 2015. No congressional approval is needed to create the ratings, but Congress would have to approve tying federal aid to the metrics.

“We will 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,” Corbett said in a written statement.

Talking to reporters on Air Force One, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the new metrics would be carefully crafted.

“We’re going to take some time and be really thoughtful on this,” he said. “It’s not something we’re going to do overnight. I’m going to travel the country; the president is going to be out talking to folks. You worry about perverse incentives or doing the wrong thing, so we’re going to take our time on it.”

In pushing a plan under which colleges would be rated on things like tuition, average student loan debt, graduation rates and the average earnings of graduates, Obama is following the lead of several states which already have implemented performance-based funding.

The latest is Massachusetts, where about half of state allocations to community colleges will be tied to each college’s ability to improve graduation rates, meet the state’s workforce needs and help more minority students thrive.

Obama said tax payers have the right to demand results from higher education.

“Colleges are not going to just be able to keep on increasing tuition year after year and passing it on to students,” Obama said. “We can’t price the middle class and everybody working to get into the middle class out of college.”

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