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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 October 13 - 08:31 pm

Measuring Up?

Questions Persist About Proposed College Rating System

With the first draft of President Obama’s proposed college ratings system soon due for release, community college leaders are asking sharp questions, questioning whether it will serve its intended purpose or merely give Washington bureaucrats a new layer of political cover.

Billed as an effort to slow the rapid rise in college costs, the proposal would rate colleges on things such as tuition, graduation rates, earnings and debt of their graduates and how many lower-income students and first-generation students attend.

The ratings would compare and contrast colleges against peer institutions, federal officials said. Over the long term, the idea is to tie federal financial aid to ratings. Students at highly rated colleges would get larger federal grants and more affordable student loans. Poor performers would face sanctions. It would be performance-based funding on a national scale.

Currently, nearly all the $150 million the federal government funnels to students through colleges is based on student headcounts. It does not take into account metrics such as graduation rates or debt incurred by students. Under the new proposal, students could still attend whatever college they desire, but federal support would shift to higher-ranked schools.

During a series of public forums, many top-tier four-year schools embraced the plan. But community colleges question the utility of such a system and are asking whether the time and money being invested in developing it is worthwhile.

“We don’t support ratings systems,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “All signs are that it won’t be rankings, like U.S. News and World Report.

That’s a positive. But we don’t agree with the basic paradigm, so we want to make sure that that data that is used is good data.”

“It’s not really that relevant to community colleges. I don’t see it influencing a lot of student decisions. But if it’s an impetus for gathering better data, that’s a good thing.”

Some college presidents are angry, even agitated, but are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of alienating their federal overseers. The Education Department’s long struggle to enact “gainful employment” regulations for vocational programs has undermined confidence that federal officials can get the ratings initiative right.

Said one college leader who asked anonymity in order to speak freely: “I have little confidence in our government’s approach to a rating system. It is not motivated by trying to make colleges better, it is purely a political approach. They and other administrations have consistently undervalued the role of community colleges in our economy because they view higher education through a lens that is tinted by the private colleges, and the for-profit institutions. The public universities, colleges and community colleges get lumped into one basket and therefore their effect is minimized.”

Said another college leader: “I am totally against a rating system that is punitive. The Department of Education doesn’t have a clue as to what the impact will be and for that matter, they don’t care. They are simply following through on the many well-intended, meaningless reforms of the recent past. I have little confidence in the Department’s staff in general. They should not sanction colleges or grade them.”

Some independent community college observers question whether developing the ratings system is a fool’s errand.

“I do not think community colleges should be included in the ratings system because they have an incomparable mission that will be harmed by the ratings,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading scholar on community colleges and professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The department would be foolish to waste time on rating them. It won’t drive improvement in performance and could do untold harm….it’s time someone stood up and acknowledged that one size doesn’t fit all, and these schools are unlike all others. Rate the private schools, since after all, they get public funds without accepting a public mission.”

College leaders point to wide variations in local funding in contending that rating community colleges is a poor idea. For example, there are 25 states with, and 25 states without, local tax appropriations for their community colleges. In states like Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Virginia, local tax appropriations approach zero. When the National Center for Education Statistics publishes data that shows that the average for local funding is 17 percent nationwide, it masks large differences. In some college districts, local funding can total between 40 and 60 percent of total revenues.”

Kay McClenney, director emeritus of the Community College Center for Student Engagement, is a longtime critic of college rating systems. The recent work of the Obama administration has done nothing to change her mind.

“My position on college rankings is well known, and my perspectives on the proposed federal rating system are no different,” she wrote in an email. “The administration is to be commended for its interest in providing strong and pertinent information to the public about public institutions of higher education. That said, neither the public nor community colleges would be well-served by a ratings system that does not (and cannot) take important variations into account. Each community college’s performance should be considered in the context of its mission, program offerings, resources, and widely varying student characteristics. Because of substantial variation in these areas, a rating system serves little constructive purpose.

“Furthermore, an important distinction between community colleges and many baccalaureate institutions is that students typically choose to attend the community college that is closest to home or work. They certainly need to have information about the performance of their institution, in terms of student progress and success — but their choice typically will not be aided by federal ratings.”

George Boggs, former president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, teaches a doctoral class on community college leadership and his students have been having lively discussions about the pros and cons of the proposal. Much of the discussion has focused on potential sanctions for low-performing colleges and the possibility they will create unintended consequences, undermining the mission of community colleges.

“The biggest concern about accountability is that if colleges will be rewarded or punished for outcomes (e.g., through funding or through financial aid for their students), they might screen out the students who are least likely to be successful so they can improve outcome data,” he wrote. “We have already seen several community colleges refuse to participate in the student loan program so as not to jeopardize Pell support for their students, so we know that these factors influence college decisionmaking.

“I think the Voluntary Framework of Accountability being created by AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees is the best answer for community college accountability, as it is being created by community college professionals and not policy makers who know little about the colleges or the students.”

Like other leaders, Boggs said he understands the rationale of the federal government in wanting to rate colleges and provide consumers with more information.

“There is a substantial taxpayer investment in federal financial aid and a very uneven student success rate across institutions,” he said. “There is a concern about the escalating cost of higher education, about loan default rates, and about America’s comparable education level globally.”

Boggs, like others contacted for this story, questioned whether the federal government is capable of devising a ratings system that is both fair and useful. Can such a plan account for the broad diversity of American higher education?

“That is a good question, especially given the poor track record of data availability at the federal level,” he wrote.

“Recall that Congress actually voted to prohibit a unit record data system for students in the wake of the Spellings Committee recommendations. Although IPEDS is supposed to be updated, it tracks only first-time, full-time freshmen at a time when fewer students fall into this category.”

“Can the government come up with a rating system that works for all of U.S. higher education that ranges from community and technical colleges to liberal arts colleges to HBCUs to research universities? Our experience with the development of gainful employment regulations hasn’t been encouraging.”

John E. Roueche, president of the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University and former director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas, questioned whether a ratings system could account for the demographic realities of community college students.

“One thing we do know for sure is that poverty is absolutely a predictor of poor student retention and performance, so comparing community colleges and the historically black colleges and universities with most of the colleges and universities in this country (and beyond), who seek to admit only the best, the brightest, the most talented and privileged members of this society is simply ludicrous,” he wrote in an email. “It would be like comparing spas with intensive care units. Even trying to compare our urban community colleges with the more affluent ones changes the student variables dramatically.”

“I am highly suspect of any evaluation strategy that fails to differentiate mission differences as well as the proposed population to be served. Many community college leaders are already saying they will just impose admission standards to make sure that only low-risk students are admitted.”

“How can you compare colleges that admit the country’s poorest people to those that only take the top 1 percent?”

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