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Obama’s proposals for colleges get an ‘F’ from state education leaders

grade f-graphic_rgbPresident Barack Obama has drawn the fire from college presidents around the country for a proposal to adopt a rating system for the nation’s colleges and universities that the President says its designed to combat rising college tuition costs and make colleges more accountable providing a quality education that results in students being able to get a good job.

“His plan will measure college performance through a new ratings system so students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value,” said a White House press release. “And after this ratings system is well established, Congress can tie federal student aid to college performance so that students maximize their federal aid at institutions providing the best value. The President’s plan will also take down barriers that stand in the way of competition and innovation, particularly in the use of new technology, and shine a light on the most cutting-edge college practices for providing high value at low costs.”

For years, ratings of colleges have been done by publications like Barron’s and U.S. News & World Report. The system Obama proposes would give colleges ratings like excellent, good, fair or poor.

Many education leaders have concerns about the federal government taking on a ranking system, particularly since those might be used to penalize schools with a low rating. Obama wants Congress to use the ratings to allocate federal student loan and grant money worth billions each year.

University presidents from around the country have said that rating universities isn’t that simple.

“I do not believe a ‘one-size-fits-all’ rating system for public and private universities and colleges is an effective approach,” said Mississippi State University President Mark E. Keenum. “Given its support for higher education, it is reasonable for the federal government to expect our institutions to provide quality education and a pathway for students to succeed, but there are too many variables and widely-differing factors relating to measuring achievement to enable a national ratings system to work.”

The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) already have a system in place that focuses on outcomes.

“It includes a funding allocation formula that is based on performance and meeting benchmarks for graduation rates, enrollment and retention,” Keenum said. “It also takes into account the unique missions of our institutions and the students we serve, something a national rating system could not do. This is a more appropriate way to improve the quality and effectiveness of higher education, in my estimation.

Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Hank M. Bounds said the IHL Board of Trustees fully supports the idea that universities must provide an excellent value to students and the state for each dollar received, whether from tuition or appropriations.

“That is why the board approved a performance-based allocation model last year,” Bounds said. “The model includes graduation and retention rates, productivity outcomes and considers the varying costs incurred when teaching individual courses and operating the campus as a whole.”

The formula measures the number of credit hours completed at each university and measures attainment outcomes, which include degrees awarded, the number of students graduating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields and how many at-risk students are served by the university and how many successfully complete the first credit-bearing English and math courses in college.

Bounds said they are working with various higher education organizations around the country to help ensure that the proposed federal government rating system is appropriate and assesses these metrics accurately while recognizing that institutions have different missions and dramatically different student bodies.

“Mississippi public universities are focused on helping each student succeed, which will ultimately improve the educational attainment levels of our citizens, drive economic development and help create a more prosperous Mississippi,” Bounds said.

The White House said the rating system is needed because college tuition keeps rising. The average tuition at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past 30 years, while incomes for typical families grew by only 16 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

“Declining state funding has forced students to shoulder a bigger proportion of college costs; tuition has almost doubled as a share of public college revenues over the past 25 years from 25 percent to 47 percent,” the White House said. “While a college education remains a worthwhile investment overall, the average borrower now graduates with over $26,000 in debt. Only 58 percent of full-time students who began college in 2004 earned a four-year degree within six years. Loan default rates are rising, and too many young adults are burdened with debt as they seek to start a family, buy a home, launch a business, or save for retirement.”

College leaders have predicted the rating system could hurt the very populations that the president said he wants to help because often minority and low-income students come from underfunded public schools and have had less college preparation. Those colleges would rank lowest in a new rating system.

Smaller colleges in Mississippi including Mississippi Valley State University and Mississippi University for Women declined to comment, deferring to IHL.



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About Becky Gillette