Private, public colleges divided over Obama’s new ratings

Private schools oppose the ratings, but public schools support them

Private and public colleges are gearing up for the impending political showdown over President Obama’s new college ratings—but they have joined opposing sides.

The president plans to unveil an initial draft of the ratings methodology this fall. Advocates hope the ratings will help students compare colleges’ value in terms of:

  • Access, such as the proportion of students receiving federal need-based financial aid;
  • Affordability, as measured by average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and
  • Outcomes, such as graduation rates, graduate income, and the number of students continuing on to obtain advanced degrees.

In the future, the ratings may decide how the government allocates the $150 billion it spends annually on grants and loans, little of which is currently tied to outcomes.

According to David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), the White House's proposed college ratings system fails to capture differences in ranked institutions’ missions. The NAICU represents private colleges.

Warren’s message has resonated with Republicans in Congress. At their recent conference, the NAICU gave a standing ovation to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking Republican on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, when he took the stage. Alexander plans to introduce a measure in the Senate to block funding for the ratings.

But the Obama administration has found allies among public universities and community colleges. Public institutions see the rankings as a way to reclaim federal funding from for-profit colleges.  

King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, urged lawmakers to “distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.” Although for-profits enroll only 13% of students, they represent one-fifth of federal student loans and nearly half of student loan defaults (McDonald, Bloomberg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8/26; Calvert, PBS, 8/27; Executive Office of The President, 8/22/13; Marcus, Hechinger Report, 9/8; Abdul-Alim, Diverse Education, 9/7).

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