This isn't how you score at college

By Cody Drabble

A cross-country “listening” tour for President Barack Obama’s college-rating system huffed to its final stop last month at UC Davis, where a skeptical audience greeted the fledgling proposal.

Jamienne Studley, deputy undersecretary for education, acknowledged critics have dismissed the idea of a universal score card to evaluate more than 7,000 accredited colleges and universities. During the December 17, 2013, roundtable discussion, she told attendees the goal of a national rating system is to “help us be clearer about what schools offer good value” to students based on access, completion, affordability, transparency and innovation.

But not everyone is sold on the idea. Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, noted that the Association of American Universities already refused to endorse the rating system—one indication of “a lack of complete enthusiasm” in the higher-education community for the president’s proposal. And numerous faculty and students expressed hesitation about the long-term goal of the rating system: tying federal financial-aid dollars to score-card performance.

Studley reassured the panel that her goal is to hammer out a Consumer Reports-type “ratings system, not a ranking system,” to help parents and students swimming in a sea of brochures make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Edward Mills, Sacramento State’s associate vice president for enrollment management, noted that a good deal of existing college information isn’t particularly consumer-friendly.

The discussion often returned to a controversial idea to use graduates’ earnings as a measure of success. The proposal will have to avoid the unintended consequence of penalizing institutions that graduate more public-school teachers than stockbrokers, Studley said.

U.S. Reps. Dr. Ami Bera and John Garamendi, both California Democrats, also participated in the discussion, and said a rating system could play an important role in an era of rising higher-education costs. Bera graduated from the UC system in the 1980s with less than $10,000 in debt from undergraduate and medical degrees, while Garamendi’s daughter recently earned her medical degree with more than $225,000 of debt.

The Department of Education previously hosted round tables at CSU Dominguez Hills, George Mason University, University of Northern Iowa and Louisiana State University. A fuller proposal is expected later this spring.

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