Ratings plan threatens open-access colleges

A federal college ratings system could penalize open-access institutions and hurt disadvantaged students, said participants in a  public forum in southern California. The U.S. Education Department plans three more forums to solicit feedback on President Obama’s ratings plan, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Community colleges can’t be rated fairly, several speakers said.  State performance models make more sense than developing a new federal metric, said Thomas Fallo, the superintendent/president of El Camino Community College District in the Los Angeles area.

Audrey Dow, community affairs director at Campaign for College Opportunity, . . .  expressed concern that underprivileged students would be denied access to education if they were to live in a community where local colleges performed poorly in the ratings system and they therefore received less federal aid. The administration plans to ultimately persuade Congress to link its rating system to federal funding starting in 2018.

David Levitus, the California deputy director of Young Invincibles , a student advocacy group, cautioned against ratings metrics that reduce incentives for institutions to enroll disadvantaged students. He said a recent move to performance-based funding in Ohio largely punished institutions that enroll low-income students.

The ratings will compare colleges with similar missions that serve similar students, said Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley. “We take very seriously” the concerns about access for low-income students, she said.

The department plans to release a draft proposal in the spring.

Without better data, a ratings system could do more harm than good, warns Matthew M. Chingos on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Clare McCann of the New American Foundation has described the significant limitations of existing data on colleges, such as the omission of part-time students from graduation rate data and the federal ban on linking student-level data across different sources, as the “elephant in the room” of the White House plan.

The best measure of whether a college is adding value is to look at the quality of entering students, Chingos writes. SAT and ACT scores are an imperfect measure. And students at community colleges don’t take the SAT or ACT.

A high-quality ratings system will require high-quality data, he writes. That will include “a radical overhaul of IPEDS, measures of college readiness, data that drill down from the campus level to the program level, and a creative strategy to link college graduates to their labor market outcomes.” It won’t happen in 2014.