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Proposed federal college rating system alarms colleges

POSTED: June 2, 2014 12:04 a.m.

Brenau University President Ed Schrader says a proposed rating system by the federal government for colleges and universities is a step in the wrong direction.

“One of the worst possible eventualities I can think of would be for the federal government to get overly engaged in ... higher education in the United States,” Schrader said.

The New York Times reported May 25 that President Barack Obama has proposed a government rating system for all colleges and universities, including private institutions. Multiple news outlets quoted Jamienne Studley, deputy under secretary at the Education Department, as saying “it’s like rating a blender.”

The rating system is part of the Obama administration’s plan to make college more affordable. The idea is to judge colleges based on student loan debt and graduate salaries, among other factors. The ratings could eventually be tied to federal financial aid.

Schrader said while schools must be held accountable, the question is how that accountability is measured. Education officials are worried the suggested system would give lower ratings to liberal arts colleges and schools with high numbers of graduates in fields that don’t typically offer higher salaries, like education or theater.

The country’s post-secondary education system, Schrader said, is the envy of the world, mainly because the federal government has largely stayed out of it.

“The United States leads the world in collegiate and post-graduate education,” Schrader said. “The world wants to come to the United States to go to school. We’ve lost supremacy in a lot of areas, but we haven’t lost it in education.

“I’m not an anti-government fanatic,” he continued. “But one of the reasons the United States remains the leader in education is the government is not involved and schools are free to pursue their own expertise and academic interests.”

Schrader is also concerned the rating system as proposed could punish schools based on regional economics.

“How could you compare the outcomes of a small Georgia school in the Georgia Piedmont, somewhere down around Vidalia or Valdosta?” he asked. “Looking at the economic possibilities for the people that will graduate from that school, versus a similar-sized, similar-quality school in Manhattan? To compare a regionally-depressed area to a booming area and say that the school in New York is better is only saying that the location is better.”

University of North Georgia spokeswoman Kate Maine said details about the federal rating system are still unclear so she had no official comment on the system itself. However, she said the institution does welcome being held accountable, using private rating systems like from the U.S. News & World Report as an example.

“As a public university, we understand the importance of providing a high quality educational experience while maintaining accessibility for students,” Maine wrote in an email. “(The university) is supportive of measures that help students and their families make well-informed decisions about higher education.”

Schrader also hinted that the proposed system incorrectly compares college debt to other types of debt. That’s an unfair way to look at a college education, he said.

“The average American student completes four years of college with a debt between $25,000 and $30,000,” Schrader said. “The average college-aged student who graduates from college, within a year from their graduation, goes out and buys a car that costs more than all of their college debt and they put all of that on debt. Now, are they complaining about the price of the car that will depreciate to nothing in value in five years, versus debt that will pay for the rest of their life, let alone their enriched experience of life?

“To me it’s out of proportion. I would much rather double my expense of education, knowing it’s going to prepare me to live a fulfilled, caring and service-filled life than the car. I don’t care if they buy the car. It’s great. But keep it in context.”

The White House already has a College Scorecard on its website that lists tuition costs, graduation rates, loan default rates and the typical borrowed amount. The proposed rating system is still in development.

In a blog post on the Department of Education’s website, Studley wrote the plan is to have a proposal put together by the fall, and then have the final version in place by the 2015-16 school year.

Schrader expects some form to go into effect, mostly because the political climate is so contentious.

He said it’s nearly impossible to compare Brenau to two other Georgia-based private colleges with the same measures.

“Emory is a wonderful school. Brenau is a wonderful school. Berry is a wonderful school,” Schrader said. “We’re different schools. We serve different student bodies, and we all contribute to the betterment of society.

“To try to measure us all with the same yardstick and call us the same is counterproductive.”


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