Community-College Leaders Give Obama’s Ratings System a Fresh Grilling

February 12, 2014

The Education Department faced more grilling on Tuesday from college leaders over President Obama’s planned college-ratings system, with trustees and presidents at the Community College National Legislative Summit questioning the feasibility and fairness of such a system.

At the outset of a session on the ratings, Jeff Appel, a deputy under secretary of education, acknowledged "the challenges and pitfalls" the administration faces in developing a college-rating tool.

"We recognize ratings could never paint a complete picture of higher education" or the success of its graduates, he told attendees. "They’re not intended to do so."

He reminded the audience that the administration has held "scores" of meetings to get feedback on the system, and he invited listeners to participate in crafting it.

"We know Washington doesn’t have all the answers," he said. "We really mean for this to be a two-way conversation. Together, we think we can do this right."

But attendees at Tuesday’s session were not convinced. They asked how the administration would account for differences in institutional mission and demographics, and warned again of the unintended consequences of its plan. They complained that community colleges already face too many reporting burdens, and they worried aloud that the president's ratings would quickly evolve into rankings.

Mr. Appel reassured them that the administration had no plans to rank colleges, and said the department was weighing how it might adjust for mission and demographics, without rendering institutional comparisons meaningless.

"We’re still working hard to balance competing priorities," he said. "At some level we need to make it useful for students and families who may be comparing unlike institutions."

Data Constraints

Under Mr. Obama’s plan, colleges that performed well in the ratings would be rewarded with additional federal dollars while colleges that performed poorly would lose some aid. Skeptics fear such a system would punish colleges that serve many low-income and minority students and would encourage open-access institutions to tighten their entrance criteria or dumb down their standards.

At Tuesday’s session, Peter L. Mora, president of Atlantic Cape Community College, in New Jersey, asked how the administration would guard against the redistribution of federal dollars to more-selective colleges with wealthier students.

Mr. Appel said the department was engaging in a "very significant discussion" about "the extent to which the system should account for different institutional demographics," but he added that its efforts were hampered by data constraints.

Beyond age and family income, the government collects "scant data on student demographics," he said, noting that the administration has doubts about using race and gender in drawing distinctions among colleges.

"We don’t want to end up in a place where we’re conveying that we have different expectations" for different categories of students, he said.

Pauline T. Jaske, board chair of Waukesha County Technical College, in Wisconsin, suggested that the administration place less emphasis on a college’s graduation rate and more on whether its students achieve the goals they came to college with—transferring to a four-year institution, earning a job promotion, or simply gaining additional skills. "If they reached that goal, that’s a success," she argued.

Mr. Appel said the department was considering using the results of alumni surveys as a measure in its ratings, saying satisfaction scores could be "potentially useful" to consumers.

‘Ambitious Timeline’

Another attendee, Michele Bresso, associate vice president for government relations at Kern County Community College, in California, asked the Education Department to take the lead in streamlining the redundant and sometimes conflicting reporting requirements that colleges face. Such consolidation, she added, would help control costs and ensure that "we’re all speaking the same language" on student outcomes.

Mr. Appel blamed the overlapping requirements on the "triad" of federal, state, and accreditor oversight, which distributes accountability across three distinct entities, but he said there "may be opportunities to coordinate to reduce burden and increase effectiveness."

The White House has said it plans to release a prototype rating system sometime in the spring and publish the first ratings in the 2014-15 academic year. Then it will seek to persuade Congress to tie the ratings to the student-aid system.

Karin M. Hilgersom, president of Sullivan County Community College, in New York, said she was "surprised" and "troubled" by the "ambitious timeline." She questioned the "political motivations" behind the rush and asked how the administration would get results that aren’t "garbage in and garbage out," given the well-established shortcomings of federal outcomes data.

"I don’t mind being rated, but I don’t want to be on a permanent campaign trail because I’ve got students who need to learn and faculty who need to teach," she said.

‘Soft Accountability’

Mr. Appel said Mr. Obama was motivated by concerns about student debt and the escalating cost of college, and wanted to ensure that students and taxpayers were getting a return on their investment in the nation’s colleges.

He noted that the plan has strong support from student and consumer groups as well as organizations that work with low-income students.

In an interview after the event, Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which advocates for low-income students, said she supported the idea of tying some federal aid to student outcomes.

"If you want to improve outcomes for students, you need to have something more than soft accountability," she said. "You need to have meaningful consequences."

But she agreed with Christine Keller, the other panelist at Tuesday’s session, that there ought to be two separate systems for evaluating colleges—one for accountability and another for consumer information. At the session, Ms. Keller, associate vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, argued for such an approach.

"There’s nothing inherently wrong with rankings," she argued. "It’s who is doing it."

"If a student is doing it on their own, great," she said. "It’s when someone else imposes their own values on it that it becomes difficult."