Colleges Skeptical of Obama's Proposed Ratings

Current student data does not reflect the diversity of America’s students, experts say.

A new college ratings system proposed by President Obama in August is scheduled to launch in spring 2015.

A new college ratings system proposed by President Obama in August is scheduled to launch in spring 2015.

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Department of Education officials solicited feedback on President Obama's proposed college ratings system today during an all-day open forum at George Mason University in Virginia.

Noticeably absent from the public forum: the public.

No concerned parents or curious students took the mic during the morning session of the forum to give their input on a system intended to help them make a more informed college choice.

Instead, representatives from universities, community colleges, professional associations and nonprofit organizations voiced their concerns, criticism and suggestions.

[Read how the proposed ratings differ from the Best Colleges rankings.]

While the general consensus was that more information for the consumer – the student – is good, many used their allotted time to express skepticism of the ratings' ability to reflect and benefit a college-going population that includes adult learners, transfer students and part-time students attending two-year, four-year and online institutions.

"There is anxiety. That is probably the best word to describe the feelings community college presidents have about the proposed ratings system," said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges.

"The model that many people in this room have in their head about the choices that are made before attending college and the decision-making process, it's not one that's followed by community college students."

Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy and external relations for the Association of Community College Trustees, took that sentiment a step further.

"We strongly oppose using these ratings to rank our institutions," Lee said.

[Learn how to save money by attending community colleges.]

The rating system proposed by the White House would factor in cost, graduation rates and income after graduation, among other variables, to score colleges and universities.

But the current formula used by the Department of Education to calculate graduation rates only considers first-time, full-time students who graduate from the same university in which they initially enrolled.

Under that formula, the University of Maryland—University College, an online university serving primarily adult students and active-duty military members, has a graduation rate of less than 10 percent, said Sarah Dufendach, the university's vice president for federal government relations.

That graduation rate is "wildly inaccurate," she said.

While current graduation rate calculations do not account for students who transfer schools or attend part time, Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, said she supports the White House's initiative. The nonprofit organization works with primarily low-income and minority students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

"A ratings system, not a ranking system, would allow students to compare similar institutions," similar to Consumer Reports, Cook said.

Consumer information is good, but a single ratings system can't possibly capture the different missions and cultures of the more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States, much less their diverse student bodies, said David Swinton, president of Benedict College in South Carolina.

[Get college selection tips from students and alums.]

"We are very concerned that the federal government might not be able to develop a sufficiently nuanced rating system," Swinton said.

Students and parents already use myriad college data available via universities and other organizations to make their college decisions, he added.

"It is not clear at all that the mere addition of another ratings system will provide any improvement in the college selection process or make college more affordable."

Today's forum was the second in a four-part series. Department of Education officials head to the University of Northern Iowa on Friday, Nov. 15, and Louisiana State University on Thursday, Nov. 21. Students, parents and others who would like to weigh in on the proposed ratings system can do so in person at either event, or submit written feedback via the department's website.