Ed Dept. releases ‘framework’ to rate colleges

WASHINGTON (AP) — Colleges and universities have fretted over how they will be judged under a new college ratings system President Barack Obama announced last year would be developed to encourage transparency and affordability.

The wait will continue.

In an acknowledgement of just how complicated it is for the federal government to assess more than 7,000 colleges and universities, the Education Department on Friday released a “framework” for how the ratings plan could work instead of the actual system.

Much of the focus is on access, affordability and outcomes — particularly the number of students completing their degree. Although graduates’ salaries would be considered, the administration said the salary-specific data would be focused on seeing if graduates are able to pay for basic needs. It does not say how each of the metrics it’s considering would be weighted, although it’s possible an institution could receive more than one rating under different categories. Schools would not be ranked.

When Obama announced the effort last year, it received immediate pushback from much of the higher education community and Republicans. Critics said a ratings system could provide a disincentive for colleges to accept students considered high-risk.

Congress does not need to approve the ratings system, but it would need to pass legislation if it is to be used to parcel out federal financial aid. Ted Mitchell, the department’s under secretary, said Obama is unlikely to ask for that during his remaining two years in office.

He said students want “credible, clear, easy to understand information,” and the ratings system will help provide that. He said it’s still on track to be released before the 2015-2016 school year.

“I think people have been worried primarily because they don’t know what it is we actually intend to do,” Mitchell said. “I’m hopeful that now that we have a document out we’ll be able to have a very constructive, positive conversation about how we do this in the right way.”

Terry Hartle, the senior vice president at the American Council on Education representing college presidents, said the framework is a carefully and thoughtfully constructed document that asks good questions. But, he said it also underscores the challenges ahead for the department as it tries to meet its deadline, particularly with the limitations in the data available to measure things like graduation rates and the number of first generation college students. He said if a school sees its reputation scarred under a flawed system they will “feel quite reasonably they have been harmed.”

“They have a long way to go and not too much time to get there if they want to produce a quality product,” Hartle said.

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