New White House college rating system already under heavy scrutiny

A controversial Obama administration rating system for colleges and universities already is being scrutinized ahead of its late-December rollout by educators who claim the government’s goal of more transparency could come at the expense of schools that don’t happen to fit the ivory tower model.

The federal government, with its long-awaited rating system, is trying to hold the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable not only to taxpayers, but also to prospective students trying to weigh the pros and cons of different institutions.

But it has many in the education community on edge. Several colleges and education associations have launched a preemptive PR strike against the plan, though the details haven’t yet been released.

“I don’t know how they can complain about something that isn’t even out,” a source at the Department of Education told on condition of anonymity.

The ratings system, rumored to be released on Dec. 19, is likely to re-ignite the debate on the federal government’s role in higher education. The Obama administration has had to balance its position as a cheerleader for innovation with its demands for colleges and universities to rein in tuition costs, while also pressing the institutions to produce more employable graduates.

The idea of a national rating system was pitched as a way to create more transparency in the government. Colleges and universities receive nearly $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants. Rating schools, the administration argues, is a way for American taxpayers to see whether the money is worth it.

But critics say the government should butt out and worry a broad system could lead to unintended consequences — like creating perverse incentives for schools in pursuit of higher ratings. They worry it could hurt institutions that serve low-income and underprivileged students, as well as junior colleges and those that feature liberal arts programs.

“What we are opposed to is the federal government taking the factors IT thinks is important from a policy perspective and putting a federal letter grade INSTEAD of leaving that judgment up to students and families depending on their individual needs,” Pete Boyle, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told in an email.

The Obama administration has pointed to spikes in tuition, dives in graduation rates and the growing weight of debts as driving factors for the national rating system.

But many in the higher education field say it shouldn’t be up to the federal government to police colleges and universities.




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