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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

Obama Defends College Ratings

06/12/2014

Inside Higher Ed. June 11, 2014.

A bipartisan pair of Congressional lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives opposing the Obama administration’s college ratings system. The president, meanwhile, defended the proposal as a necessary tool for students.

The resolution, by Representatives Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, Republican and Democrat, respectively, criticizes the ratings system as “reductionist” and warns that the government’s ratings would “carry an image of validity that will mislead” prospective students.

“The administration’s proposal to rate postsecondary institutions through an oversimplified federal rating system that is not supported by postsecondary institutions, statute or by the House of Representatives, will lead to less choice, diversity and innovation, and should be rejected,” the resolution says.  

Goodlatte previously circulated an email to colleagues that said he’s seeking ways in the current budget process to block the administration from developing the rating system.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate’s education committee, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed on Monday that he would support an effort to prevent the Education Department from developing the ratings system. But he said that such Congressional intervention likely wouldn’t be necessary.

“I expect that the president’s proposal for a college ratings system will flop on its own face.” Alexander said. “We haven’t seen it yet and we probably won’t ever see it because it’s impossible to do it the way they’re planning to do it with 6,000 autonomous institutions” of higher education across the country.

The administration has said that even without any funding from Congress, it plans to produce a draft of the plan for public comment by this fall.

During a question-and-answer session on Tumblr, Obama on Tuesday acknowledged that there is “some controversy” surrounding the proposal, which is said to be a personal priority of his.

“A lot of colleges and universities say if you start ranking just based on cost and employability, et cetera, you’re missing the essence of higher education and so forth,” Obama said. “What we’re really trying to do is just to identify: here are some good bargains; here are some really bad deals. Then there’s going to be a bunch of schools in the middle that there’s not going to be a huge amount of differentiation.”

“What we are trying to do is to make sure that students have enough information going into” college, he continued, so that “they don’t end up in a school that is pretty notorious for piling a lot of debt on their students but not really delivering a great education.”

Obama also criticized “traditional rankings systems” like those published in U.S. News & World Report for rewarding high-cost institutions. His plan would instead focus on outcomes, he said, though he referred to it as an attempt to “develop a ranking system.”

Administration officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have repeatedly insisted that their goal is to develop a ratings system, not a ranking system.

Many higher education leaders, especially those representing private colleges, however, have dismissed such a rhetorical distinction as meaningless, arguing that it will not be difficult to discern a hierarchical ranking of institutions from the data-based judgments that the government publishes about colleges. If the government doesn't do the sorting itself, they say, others will do so.