- - Monday, January 5, 2015

Continuing its long march, the Obama administration is now targeting colleges and universities for federal scrutiny of student-loan repayment rates, student retention and graduates’ “gainful employment” salary statistics — promising punitive sanctions for those colleges which do not measure up.

On Dec. 19, the Education Department released a draft of its long-awaited college ratings plan — a plan that President Obama promises will help colleges improve and allow policymakers and public to hold institutions accountable for their outcomes. This new ratings plan is not a surprise, as the president’s 2012 State of the Union address warned that he would cut federal aid to any college that did not keep tuition increases in check. In a speech decrying college costs at the University of Buffalo on Aug. 22, 2013, the president promised to punish those colleges that failed to meet federal standards. However, the recent ratings plan released by the Obama administration goes far beyond federal involvement in scrutinizing tuition costs — to include rewarding those colleges with higher percentages of low-income students receiving Pell Grants and punishing those which fail to do so. Ultimately, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported, the Obama administration “wants Congress to tie some portion of federal student aid to the ratings.”

According to the Department of Education, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of students accessing higher education with Pell Grants, and a major increase in the number of minority students in college. This is real progress, but such progress has come at great expense as the Pell Grant program under the Obama administration has grown from $19 billion to nearly $40 billion.

Rating colleges on their net price, their students’ completion rates and the percentage of their students receiving Pell Grants has long been the focus of the Obama plan. The ratings also now include labor-market outcomes for graduates. It is the “gainful employment” rating that worries many college and university administrators — especially Catholic and Christian colleges where large numbers of graduates choose to pursue positions in ministry, missionary work, social work, nursing, teaching, public service or other less lucrative careers. These students learn to focus on serving others rather than self — something they were taught in their mission-driven colleges and universities. The administration has been reluctant to address how “gainful employment” would be defined in this ratings system, but religious colleges will likely lose in any ratings system that privileges high earnings for graduates as an indicator of success.

Criticizing the ratings plan for its lack of transparency, Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE), complained that the ratings plan “only serves to underscore concerns that the [education] department lacks a clear framework, the data, and the time needed to do this well. … This project is driven by a timetable set by the president. I would be much more comfortable if it were driven by a desire to get it absolutely right.” ACE has issued a report warning that “the ratings scheme will nonetheless become a de facto ranking, with negative consequences for the very low-income and other underrepresented students whom the administration is looking to serve.

Beyond criticism from higher education administrators, there has been bipartisan opposition to the college rating system as Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Michael Capuano, Massachusetts Democrat, have introduced H.R. 614, opposing the president’s proposal. Suggesting that “it is not the place of the federal government through a ratings system, to attempt to measure the value of an individual’s education,” Mr. Goodlatte has warned that such a system would “decrease choice, diversity and innovation.” Mr. Capuano shared these sentiments and added that the president’s plan was “shortsighted and even counter-productive judging the value of a college by the earnings of its graduates could cause schools to discourage alumni from public service and a variety of essential, rewarding but un-remunerative careers.”

Congress may not have a role to play in whether to approve the Obama administration ratings project. On April 30, 2014, at a hearing of a Senate subcommittee that oversees education appropriations, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised that his department would still produce the college ratings system even if it doesn’t receive the $10 million it asked Congress to allocate.

The president is correct in trying to control college tuition costs. During the past 30 years, average tuition and fees at public institutions rose 231 percent; for private colleges, there has been a 153 percent increase in costs. However, these institutions have already begun to address affordability through technology and online courses, as well as enabling students to meet graduation requirements in three years instead of four. Unfortunately, the president’s college ratings system is less focused on affordability than on a vague definition of “gainful” employment for graduates. The winners will be the colleges and universities that train leaders for finance and industry — and the low ratings will be assigned to the mission-driven religious colleges and universities that train men and women for serving others.

Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of “Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education” (Transaction Publishers, 2009).

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