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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The Department of Education (ED) went on a listening tour these past few months gathering opinions about how to make college more affordable, and the results are in. This initiative, part of President Barack Obama's plan to combat rising college costs and improve the value of higher education, revealed with cost anxiety a prevailing issue, people want more guidance in choosing a college.

Fittingly, President Obama endeavored to find a means to help students and families choose colleges and ultimately rate colleges' performance on certain financial benchmarks. These ratings are designed to increase opportunities for higher education for disadvantaged students.

People were receptive to the idea that ED will incorporate measures of college access, affordability and outcomes in their ratings. The ED provided a sample of opinions they received, and Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary of Education, posted some in a blog about the listening tour.

  • "Parents and students shouldn't have to guess. We salute the Secretary's call for a ratings system – nutrition labeling for colleges." J.B. Schramm, College Summit
  • "There is an urgency in developing solutions...Perhaps the worst thing we could be doing right now is to do nothing." King Alexander, President, Louisiana State University
  • "We whole-heartedly stand behind a ratings system...It would encourage institutions to start innovating and create more effective practices to get their students through the pipeline." Allison De Lucca, Southern California College Access Network
  • "The Administration is right to demand results, not rhetoric, and metrics for accountability." American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The ED received praise in its rating system for the grouping of colleges and universities "by mission or other criteria to generate reasonable peer groups; that the system is envisioned to generate broad performance categories, not rank-ordered lists; and that we want to give weight to whether schools are improving." According to ED, "Stakeholders said they appreciate the Department seeking advice before designing the system, but not having a specific proposal they could react to led to speculation and some concern."

With outstanding student debt over $1 trillion, there's still a ways to go toward improvement, and some of the specific areas that the public wants addressed are:

  • Preventative mechanisms to keep disadvantaged students from could going to college without considering the negative impact to them.
  • Outcomes, including employment data.
  • Intangible outcomes or how a college education helps students fit into the larger society.
  • The role of the states in subsidizing tuition and to ensure factoring these in to the ratings.
  • Consumer accessibility to information.

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The ED states that it is in the process of evaluating all the comments. The ED will work with data experts and assess existing college rating models. It intends to publish a draft of the ratings system in mid-2014 and solicit more public feedback then, with a ratings packet scheduled to be published for the 2015-16 school year.

But some, even those who might be allies of President Obama, think this is a horrible idea.

According to the president of the Metropolitan College of New York, Vinton Thompson, the Obama rating system will do to poor people what the 1910 Flexner Report did to medical schools. Abraham Flexner was an education school reformer, and at the urging of the American Medical Association's Council on Medical Education, he was assigned by the Carnegie Foundation to rate medical schools.

Writing in the December 16 edition of Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Thompson said, "....practically oriented medical schools failed to make an 'A' rating based on these criteria and eventually succumbed, Fordham and Bowdoin among them. But the system was especially powerfully stacked against Black medical schools, women's medical schools and schools serving a working-class student body. These intuitions were eventually devastated."

George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in North Carolina, an education reform think tank concurs.

"This is a terrible idea — you cannot rate a university," he said. "It is not a monolith. There are good parts and bad parts."

—Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet