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Panelists wary of Obama’s college ratings proposal

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From left, Edward Mills of Sacramento State talks with student David Kuwabara and Jamienne Studley, U.S. Department of Education deputy under secretary, during Monday's higher education roundtable at UC Davis. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | December 19, 2013 | Leave Comment

Consider context and guard against unintended consequences, panelists at UC Davis urged the U.S. Department of Education as it cooks up a new college rating system.

College leaders, staff, students, faculty, parents and education advocates shared concerns and ideas during a roundtable discussion with Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley on Monday at the Mondavi Center.

There’s not a recipe for a system yet. President Barack Obama put the department to work on one in August.

His stated goal: Create a system that helps families compare similar colleges — and that could later be used to reward with funding those that do the most to help poor students succeed.

Due out in 2015, the system likely will measure access — like the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants, affordability, including tuition, scholarships and loan debt — and outcomes — like graduation and transfer rate, advanced degrees and graduate earnings.

The proposal has been greeted with, in the words of Harold Levine, dean of UCD’s School of Education, “a general lack of complete enthusiasm” in higher-ed circles.

This month, the American Association of Universities — a group of 62 elite research schools that includes UCD and five other University of California campuses — fired off a letter waving red flags about any one-size-fits-all approach that “fails to capture the diversity of the U.S. higher education system,” relying on limited or missing data and the tricky business of defining peer groups.

Associate President Nina Robinson said UC worries that its efforts to help the same low-income students the president wants to support could be hurt by a badly designed system.

UC could have a lower tuition, for instance, but has moved instead toward a high tuition aid model. It directs 30 percent of every tuition dollar to student aid. “It would be a shame to have that kind of policy undermined,” Robinson said.

Studley said the system would not be a ranking, but rather “a single broad category or a handful of items that seem central with a rating in each one of them” — “more like Consumer Reports” than the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings.

A poorly designed system could cause colleges to steer clear of Pell-eligible students because of the challenge of graduating them, find counselors encouraging majors where graduation rates are higher or reward schools that graduate high earners over, say, teachers and nurses, Studley said.

“We want to make things better and not worse,” she said.

Pamela Eibeck, president of the University of the Pacific, expressed concern about linking ratings: “something very uncertain” to funding: “something with very high consequences.”

“I can understand that rationale in extreme cases — it’s obvious that some institutions are not serving the students, at all — but to have the sort of nuanced link that I’m hearing in the discussions of tying scorecard ratings to financial aid, I think is a very, very risky action,” she said.

Lora Jo Bossio, UCD associate vice chancellor of student affairs, said her chief worry was that a student could find herself unable to stay at a school due to its reduced federal aid.

Obama called for legislation tying funding to the rating by 2018, “but it will need to stand on the shoulders of a rating system that we all agree has meaning and value, and that we’ve tested to see how it can move things in a positive direction,” Studley said.

Ed Mills, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at Sacramento State University, said any rating should be put into a language that’s easy for families to understand.

“I do think it’s important to make comparisons and to make consumer information available, but I think it’s critically important for it to be in context,” he said.

For example, Mills said, if the department examines graduate earnings, it should compare whether graduates who become teachers compare favorably to other teachers, not stockbrokers.

Brian King, chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District, noted that California’s community colleges now have a student success scorecard and a “salary surfer” allowing students to compare the earnings potential for different degrees.

“We frequently say the community colleges serve 100 percent of the students,” King said. “So when you’re looking at that level of access, the outcome measures are very different.”

By many measures, UCD should fare well in a ratings system: 44 percent of its students receive Pell Grants, 53 percent receive enough aid to graduate without taking out loans and 66 percent graduate with less than $25,000 in debt, the national average for public universities, according to Chancellor Linda Katehi.

UCD graduates have a three-year loan default rate of 4.1 percent — compared to a 14.1 percent national average.

Panelists said they hoped that the ratings system would recognize — or at least not penalize — things they believe UCD does well. For example, if the rating stresses time to graduation, will it unintentionally discourage undergraduate involvement in research?

Dave Tanner and Bob Elms, members of the Aggie Parent Council, said the ratings should consider outreach and retention services.

“It’s not enough to just open a door to a student — you have to know that the door’s open and, once there, what’s being done to help them navigate the system,” Tanner said.

Miles Thomas, president pro tempore of the ASUCD Student Senate, and other students on hand said the ratings system should include student involvement. About 75 percent of UCD students take part in activities outside of class, he said.

The department may stick with measures that are easier to quantify, however:

“The ways that a school gets people (to graduation) might involve a lot of faculty contact, it may include having a good student services program or a good career services office, but we’re not going to tell schools that we’re going to rate those intermediate steps,” Studley said.

Reps. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said they support a ratings system, generally, saying it is important for families to be able to find the right education value for them.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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