College Presidents Decry Obama’s College Ratings

By Staff

Most college presidents don’t believe President Barack Obama’s proposed college ratings system will be an effective way to expand access and lower the cost of college, according to a new poll from Gallup and Inside Higher Ed.

Of the 675 college and university presidents surveyed, 65 percent said Obama’s plan to tie federal financial aid to an institution’s performance on the ratings is not a good idea.

Just 2 percent said the plan will be “very effective” at making college more affordable. Another 32 percent said the plan would be “somewhat effective,” while 59 percent said it would not be effective.

“I don’t think there is opposition among higher education leaders to providing more information, or even to gathering more information in some more consumer friendly form,” Debra Humphreys, vice president of policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities told U.S. News and World Report.

“The skepticism has to do with the proposal to somehow create a ratings system out of all that data and tie financial aid and Pell grant amounts to how well an institution does on those metrics,” she adds.

Although most colleges currently receive federal aid based on enrollment, Obama said in August he wants to link that money to how well colleges serve students, measured by factors such as graduation rates, graduate earnings, the number of students receiving Pell Grants and average student loan debt.

At the time, Obama said the ratings would be published before the 2015-16 academic year, and pending congressional approval, they would be used to determine the amount of an institution’s aid by 2018. Obama said the system is intended to help students make more informed choices about where they should attend college.

When he announced the plan, Obama said current college rankings systems, including those of U.S. News, create the wrong idea about college quality, and that colleges sometimes put their own interests above students’ to boost their standings. In November, White House Director of Public Policy Cecilia Munoz said for similar reasons, Obama’s plan is meant to directly compete with the U.S. News rankings system.

But the Gallup and Inside Higher Ed poll found most college presidents don’t think students will use the new information when deciding on colleges.

More than half (56 percent) either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement, while less than one-quarter (13 percent) agreed or strongly agreed.

National organizations and leaders in higher education have expressed many concerns with the plan, saying the idea of linking financial aid to measures like graduation rates could create an incentive to push out a large number of unprepared graduates, and the possibility that some of the necessary student-level data is unavailable.

Humphreys says the results were not surprising and were “quite consistent” with the sentiments from the organization’s 1,250 member institutions.

“I really haven’t had many conversations, or really any conversations, with any college presidents in the last three or four months where people have expressed support for the president’s rating system as a strategy for increasing access or lowering costs,” Humphreys says. “There’s a lot of skepticism that the goals are not aligned well with the strategies that they are pursuing.”

Humphreys says college leaders are particularly concerned with using terms like “value” and “quality” to apply to the metrics in Obama’s proposed system.

“It’s our view that the quality of a college degree, or the value of an institution of higher education, extends far beyond just what their graduation rates are or what the short-term job prospects are of their graduates,” Humphreys says. “There’s some frustration among our members about the myopia of the proposals and sort of a perceived lack of leadership in terms of a broader national dialog that we probably do need to have about what our priorities are for higher education.”