NEW YORK (MainStreet) The Obama bus tour that hit the road last August to promote his college ranking system became a distance memory by the fall. The sales job became difficult in September, then impossible in October when the sales forcethe Department of Educationwas furloughed and sitting at home during the government shut down.
Now ED staffers are living the cube life once more and promoting Obama's policies like they never left. The policices themselves are eerily reminiscent of the Bush administration's approach delineated out by former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and the 2005 Spellings Commission. Administration officials have picked up this month where the August tour left off, and accountability and outcomes are what they have to sell. It remains to be seen if the higher education community will be buyers.
Come 2015, when the ranking system is supposed to be ready, they may have little choice.
A trend in higher education is to provide access for people who have traditionally been excluded. But an influx of non-traditional students who are unprepared for college has had a bad impact on graduation rates at schools with these under-served populations. Improving access while handing out more diplomas is a conundrum President Barack Obama's college ranking plan, through its education scorecard, is supposed to address. The scorecard would measure student debt and tuition, transfer and graduation rates and the percentage of low- income students on Pell grants. The plan is for Congress to use the scorecard in determining how government aid is awarded.
Department of Education representatives have been attempting to gauge the response from colleges who will be tasked with complianceand are being met with skepticism and concern. The Los Angeles Times reported on a November 6 appearance at Cal State Dominguez Hills, one of four colleges on the tour, by Undersecretary for Education Martha Kanter, who said the Obama plan would "ensure student debt remains affordable." The Los Angeles Times also reported that Cal State history professor Kate Fawer called Obama's plan flawed and actually allows for the continued defunding of education, the increased use of MOOCs and accelerated degrees of questionable value.
"The cures are worse than the disease," Fawer said.
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities president David Warren said his colleague were O.K. with the Obama administration's goals; it was the Obama administration's ranking system that they said needed do-over.
"We are strongly requesting that the president and the department rethink having a federal value metric," Warren said in an interview with Inside Higher Education yesterday. Warren is encouraging the powers that be to see if there's another way to get shared values of affordability, completion and accountability besides a single rating system that would appraise the value of a college.
"Value ought not be determined by the department," Warren said.
Public universities, which probably have less to lose and whose product has been generally less suspect, have been more supportive for linking aid to performance.
Community colleges are also worried about linking federal aid to the college rating system. Advocates for two-year institutions have said they're concerned that a ratings system would shut out the low-income populations they generally serve. In addition, they have questioned the utility of such a ratings system since most community college students pick their school based on its geographic location, rather than other considerations.
Meanwhile Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been dealt a hand that will difficult to play since he is faced with defending a rating system that doesn't yet exist. By his own reckoning, a first draft won't be ready until next spring. With the Affordable Care Act fiasco, the sequester, another debt crisis and mid-term elections on the horizon, 2015 may seem even more distant than it did last summer.
--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet