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Obama plan could hurt community colleges

President Obama’s plan to rate colleges’ “value” is problematic, writes Matt Reed, the “Community College Dean.”

Students who choose higher-rated schools — based on graduation rates, graduates’ earnings and other metrics — would be eligible for larger Pell Grants and subsidized loans.

For community colleges, that falls somewhere between “irrelevant” and “catastrophic.”

Pell Grants go to students, not to colleges, Reed points out. At low-cost community colleges, “Pell money above and beyond tuition and fees goes directly to the student” to help offset the cost of books, transportation and living costs.

. . . for most community colleges, a higher Pell ceiling wouldn’t mean a single dollar more for the colleges themselves.  But it might well mean a larger influx of low-income students, who would presumably be rewarded for forsaking more expensive options.

Over time, more expensive colleges would benefit doubly.  They’d get higher graduation rates from having a higher-income student body — these things tend to correlate — and as a result, the low-income they do attract would come with larger checks. Meanwhile, the lower-cost colleges would absorb more high-risk students, without additional funding to pay for the supports that increase their chances of success.  The only way that community colleges would capture a gain from an increase in Pell grants would be to … wait for it … raise costs dramatically.

Higher education needs to develop a sophisticated data system, like baseball’s sabermetrics, Reed writes.

Start with an “expected” graduation rate, say, based on the demographic profile of the students.  Colleges that do better than their demographics would suggest must be doing something right; colleges that underperform their demographics presumably have some work to do.  That way, we aren’t just conflating institutional performance with the economic class of the student body.

The federal method of calculating graduation rates, which ignores part-time students and transfers, is notoriously unreliable for community colleges. Analyzing graduates’ earnings also is complex.

Obama’s higher education proposals are drawing “mixed reviews,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gloria Nemerowicz is president of the Yes We Must Coalition, which represents 33 small private colleges where at least 50 percent of the students are needy enough to be eligible for Pell Grants. She said she appreciates that the president’s plan would compare like institutions. But she’s uneasy about efforts to rate colleges based on the earnings of their graduates.

Many of Yes We Must’s member colleges are small regional institutions whose graduates serve their communities as social workers, as teachers, and in other careers that don’t pay well. It’s not fair to penalize colleges for that pattern, she said.

The Education Department’s College Scorecard will include earnings information in the fall, but only for student aid recipients, notes the Chronicle. Congress has forbidden a “unit record” system to track all students.