Duncan Calls Criticism of College-Rating Proposal 'More Than a Little Silly'

September 20, 2013

[Updated (9/20/2013, 5:09 p.m.) with response from Terry Hartle.]

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took critics of the Obama administration's proposed college-rating system to task on Friday, saying that attacking a system before its details have been worked out is "more than a little silly." He also emphasized that the proposal could represent a meaningful improvement over the current system for doling out federal aid.

In a speech to more than 100 university presidents and higher-education leaders here at the Time Summit on Higher Education, Mr. Duncan acknowledged the difficulty of creating a comprehensive system, but he said that could not be a "discussion-ending excuse for inaction."

He added that the system would be multifaceted and would incorporate measures of access for Pell Grant recipients, measures of affordability like average tuition and student debt, and output measures such as transfer rates, graduates' earnings, and alumni satisfaction.

Mr. Duncan also provided more specifics on the process of creating the rating system. The Education Department will post the first request for information on what factors could be part of the rating system next month, Mr. Duncan said, adding that the department would talk to hundreds of people.

"We're beginning this work with a great sense of humility," he said.

The proposed rating system, which would tie levels of federal aid to an institution's rating, is a central part of the college-affordability plan unveiled in August by President Obama.

Mr. Duncan noted that, at the time Mr. Obama announced the proposal, one higher-education lobbyist said the president had an obligation to use "perfect data" in compiling the ratings. Mr. Duncan did not identify the lobbyist by name (it was Terry W. Hartle, of the American Council on Education), but, he said, the lobbyist was starting from "exactly the wrong premise."

Later on Friday, Mr. Hartle responded to Mr. Duncan's remarks, saying that he maintains accuracy of data is a "fundamental premise."

"I have great respect for the secretary," Mr. Hartle said in an interview, "but if the federal government develops a high-stakes rating system, they have an obligation to base it on very accurate data."

"That doesn't seem to me to be an exceptionally controversial thing to say," he added.

Ms. Blumenstyk reported from New York, Mr. Thomason from Washington.