White House Adviser Reassures Small Colleges About Ratings Plan

By Katherine Mangans, Chronicle of Higher Education

April 24, 2014

All of the skepticism over President Obama’s proposed college-ratings plan has made the administration more determined than ever to move ahead with it, and to get it right, a senior policy adviser told representatives of small, private colleges gathered here on Thursday.

“We’re really fired up about this proposal and excited to be able to release it in the near future,” Mary Wall, a senior policy adviser for higher education at the U.S. Department of Education, told leaders of the 36 colleges that make up the Yes We Must Coalition.

The colleges have been warily awaiting the federal ratings plan, worried that it might punish colleges, like theirs, that enroll many low-income and minority students. Skeptics have questioned whether a plan that rates colleges on their graduation numbers and other performance measures might create incentives to turn away the kinds of students these colleges were founded to serve.

Ms. Wall said the administration was aware of such pitfalls and was counting on educators to evaluate a preliminary plan that’s due to be rolled out in the next few months. (The due date remains “mid-2014.”) After a comment period that will probably last two to three months, she said, the plan will be tweaked, reissued, and published before the 2015-16 academic year.

The president plans to seek legislation that would, by 2018, allocate federal financial aid based on those ratings, which will focus on access, affordability, and outcomes.

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“We’ve been told no shortage of times that we will not get it right,” Ms. Wall said, adding that the administration planned to prove its skeptics wrong. She said the administration felt “there should be a certain degree of accountability” for the billions it spends annually on higher education.

‘A Lot of Fear’

That plan, and the uncertainty about what metrics will be used to rate colleges, “have created a lot of fear,” said Gloria Nemerowicz, president and founder of the coalition.

She said she worries that mission-driven colleges like the coalition’s, which educate many teachers, public servants, and clergy members, could suffer, for instance, if graduates’ salaries were factored into the ratings.

She was encouraged, though, by the administration’s acknowledgment of the contributions made by colleges like the one she presided over for 15 years, Pine Manor College, in Massachusetts.

Ms. Wall said she understood that some people felt that their colleges had been overlooked when invitations went out to the White House’s summit, in January, on higher-education access for disadvantaged students.

“Many institutions have been focusing on this for a very long time,” she said. “This room is a great reflection of those that have made education of low-income students a top priority.” She encouraged the colleges to “tell your story with data and anecdotes.”

Such statements were reassuring to those in the audience who have been dreading the ratings plan’s rollout.

“We’re encouraged, more than we were a year ago, that at least there’s a pipeline and that our voices will be heard after it comes out of the oven,” Ms. Nemerowicz said.

The plan calls for colleges that do well under the ratings to be rewarded with additional federal dollars, while colleges that perform poorly would lose some aid.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said it was unclear whether the ratings would ever be tied to student aid, though, because Congressional approval would be needed for that. By the target date — 2018 — a new administration will be in office, and it may not share President Obama’s enthusiasm for the controversial plan.