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By Paul Bradley, Editor, CCWeek
To say that community college leaders remain highly skeptical of President Obama’s proposal to rate colleges on a variety of measures and then tie those rankings to federal student aid would be an understatement.
That was underscored earlier this month when the Obama Administration released hundreds of pages of formal comments on its proposed Postsecondary Institution Rating System — a plan to measure colleges on access, affordability and student outcomes.
Leaders questioned the usefulness of such a system. They challenged the metrics now under consideration. And they said community colleges are too to fit easily into any ranking system.
J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees, urged the administration to keep in mind that community colleges have a mission that’s far different from those of their four-year brethren.
“The vast majority of prospective community college students do not have the luxury or privilege of selecting various institutions to attend — much less one out of state — but instead are searching for affordable, high-quality, and specific programs of study near their home and work,” Brown wrote in his comments. “We hope that the Administration, which has been a strong supporter of community colleges, will remain mindful of the diverse array of higher education institutions and the students they serve. Access to affordable, quality higher education is fundamental to the community college model and remains a primary priority for ACCT and our member colleges.”
Brown also questioned the utility of some of the metrics the administration is considering in measuring colleges – for example, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants. That should be just one measure of a college’s commitment to helping low-income students, Brown said.
“Nationwide, community colleges serve the largest number of Pell Grant recipients of any sector, and 36 percent of all Pell Grant students,” he wrote.Yet Pell Grant receipt is not the only measure of income diversity. Low-income community college students often do not fill out the FAFSA at all. Just 58 percent of Pell-eligible community college students apply for aid, compared to 77 percent of four-year students. Additionally, complicating the use of Pell status as a marker of student access, Congress has repeatedly restricted eligibility for the program for nontraditional students.”
Brown also questioned plans to use student cohort default rates as a measure of a college’s effectiveness.
“While the usefulness of these numbers for prospective students and their families is debatable, cohort default rates are particularly inaccurate measures of student outcomes at community colleges,” he wrote. “Less than 17 percent of two-year public students borrow federal loans, meaning that the repayment choices of very few students can affect the default rate. Any forthcoming ratings should more prominently display the percentage of students who take out federal loans.”
College leaders also questioned the plan to rate colleges based on the earnings of their graduates. Coy Grace, president of East Arkansas Community College, wrote that the diversity of colleges and their service areas defy such efforts.
“Since most community college students are place-bound, special attention must be given to the location of an institution,” Grace wrote. “Local community colleges have a far smaller and more limited pool of students from which to draw than larger universities and colleges. More so than universities, the student body of a community college is often almost exclusively made up of students from within a limited and defined geographic area. Ratings of community colleges are not useful or accurate unless they are drawn from data that reflect the particular challenges and needs of a community college’s service area.”
“What may be a reasonable goal for an institution in an economically robust community may not be a reasonable goal for an institution in an economically less robust community.”
In its comments, the American Council on Education, the umbrella group of education associations, made clear both its opposition to the plan and its resignation that such a ratings system is nonetheless coming.
“We wish to be clear that as associations representing diverse higher education institutions, we do not support a rating system,” wrote ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. “However, because the department is gathering input on the construction of such a system, we consider it important to share the results of our conversations about its potential key elements.”
Like Grace, Corbett Broad said the diversity of American higher education makes a one-size-fits all rating system problematic.
“One central concern is that any federal rating system which evaluates colleges and universities based on a few quantifiable indicators will, in essence, treat all higher education institutions as if they were doing the same thing and educating identical student populations. The great diversity of institutional missions is widely and properly regarded as one of the great strengths of American higher education. But this diversity—illustrated by the different missions of music conservatories, Talmudic schools, community colleges, Christian colleges and research universities—makes it exceptionally difficult to construct a single rating system as a proxy for ‘value’ that will work equally well for all schools. Many college and university leaders are skeptical that a single indicator can fairly sum up any institution without further narrative information and interpretation.”
She also said the rankings could have unintended consequences.
“Any rating system, regardless of who develops it, has the potential to create perverse incentives that will skew student and institutional behaviors. To cite but one example, a heavy reliance on graduation rates could all too easily undermine access by reducing the willingness of institutions to admit students with marginal qualifications.”
The full set of public comments are available at http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;dct=PS;D=ED-2013-IES-0151