Along with thousands of other colleges and universities, Yale continues to express major concerns over President Obama’s proposed college rating system.
In a letter last week, over 20 associations of higher education institutions strongly criticized the rating system, which is a central plank of Obama’s higher education agenda. The letter comes only three weeks after over 100 college and university presidents pledged, at a White House summit, to work with the Obama Administration to expand access to higher education for low-income students. Although Yale did not help draft the letter, the University is a member of eight of the associations that wrote the letter and shares many of the authors’ concerns about the ratings system, according to Yale’s Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Richard Jacob.
Obama first introduced the idea of rating colleges on value and performance last August. Under the plan, which seeks to develop the ratings by the 2015 academic year, federal aid to colleges and universities would eventually be tied to these ratings. The rating system, if implemented, would help determine the allocation of about $150 billion in federal student financial aid each year, according to a December release from the Department of Education.
“[Yale does] favor disclosure of information about access, affordability and outcomes of education that would help prospective students make informed decisions,” Jacob said. “But a simple ratings system might not accomplish that, and could be confusing or misleading.”
Jacob said Yale is specifically concerned about the cost of compiling and submitting all of the data required for such a system. He added that many of the data elements currently available and likely to comprise part of any rating, such as graduation rates, are also not always reliable ways of measuring a school’s value and performance.
The letter, written by the American Council on Education, was penned in response to a December call from the Department of Education, and was addressed to Richard Reeves, a department official who is responsible for developing the ratings system. Reeves could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The department’s research arm had made the case to higher education institutions for a ratings system and requested technical expertise and advice on how to proceed with the system. Specifically, the department asked postsecondary institutions 30 broad questions about what data to use in the rating system and how to weight it, how to define groups of colleges and how to make the rating accessible to the public. As of December, the department had yet to decide whether the ratings system would produce a single rating for each institution or assign multiple ratings across a series of categories.
In response, the ACE outlined a series of wide-ranging issues the associations take with the rating system.
According to the letter, the Department of Education has yet to sufficiently define the terms “value” and “affordability,” two words that can have a wide range of meanings. As evidence, the letter cited the discrepancies between various magazines’ “best value” ratings. While Kiplinger rated Yale as the best value in private postsecondary education, US News picked Harvard. The Princeton Review, on the other hand, chose Williams College.
The letter also noted that the type of data requested by the federal government may not provide an accurate picture of the school. Citing a California community college at which students with loans have an extremely high default rate, the letter said three students at that college had loans, and only one of them had defaulted.
The letter placed the most emphasis, though, on how the rating system will produce “peer groups” of similar institutions.
“To cite one example, Berklee College of Music, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and Hampshire College are, at one level, comparable institutions: they are four-year private, not-for-profit colleges located in Massachusetts,” the letter reads. “But they have fundamentally different missions.”
The problems outlined in the letter are only a sampling of the qualms institutions of higher education have raised with the proposed system.
Taking graduate incomes into account in a rating system would penalize colleges that focus on less lucrative disciplines, said Susan Albertine, the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Student Success at the American Association of College and Universities.
“One of the great concerns voiced by our membership is that some professions [do] not pay well. If a college educates many teachers and social workers, a rating based on salary would be low,” Albertine said. “High salaries of course are not the chief goal of higher education. What about purpose and meaning of life, civic and democratic commitment?”
According to American Association of Colleges and Universities spokeswoman Debra Humphrey, the consensus expressed in the letter emerged over the past few months, well before the college presidents made their way to the White House for the January summit. The ratings system was not a major topic of conversation at the summit.
Humphrey said leadership from the various associations that signed the letter met several times to discuss the proposals. At least one of those meetings, she said, included officials from the Department of Education.
Albertine said much of the coordination across the various groups occurred through an organization called the Washington Secretariat, which addresses policy issues across the higher education sector. The group — effectively an association of associations — meets monthly during the academic year.