News Column

Obama Proposes New College Rating System

August 22, 2013
College costs
President Obama has proposed a system for rating colleges on costs and results.

President Barack Obama announced plans today for a new college rating system that could help students and their families better deal with rising tuition costs. The ratings aim to show which schools provide the "best value" and eventually could be tied to student financial aid offers.

The proposed system, which the president wants in place by the 2015-16 school year, is part of a multi-pronged effort to make college more affordable.

"Higher education cannot be a luxury," the president said during a speech outlining his plans this morning at University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system. " It's an economic imperative. Every American family should be able to afford to get it."

To make that a reality, Obama said he wants to "shake up the current system," pushing for states to change how they fund higher education, for colleges and universities to offer more affordable programs and for the federal government to alter how it doles out financial aid and then collects the debt.

The rating system would judge colleges and universities based on their affordability, on the access they provide to disadvantaged students and on their academic outcomes, such as graduation rates and their graduates' job earnings, the president said.

In Florida, public colleges and universities already are focused on many of the issues Obama outlined. Gov. Rick Scott has made keeping college costs low a key platform of his administration, pushing for state universities to hold the line on tuition and challenging state colleges to offer $10,000 bachelor's degrees.

Scott also signed a bill passed by the Florida Legislature this spring that seeks to create a performance-pay system for colleges and universities. The not-yet-designed system is to be based on "cost per graduate," the percentage of graduates employed or pursuing further education and the wages of employed graduates.

"The President is certainly late to the party on making higher education more affordable, but we are glad he's here," Scott said in a statement, calling Florida a "national model" for making higher education affordable.

"We encourage him to look at the reforms we have made here in Florida to hold the line on tuition and reward colleges and universities who are able to graduate students with a great job and without debilitating debt because of the high cost of tuition," he said.

It is hard to gauge yet how the president's rating system would work, but the University of Central Florida should show well if the focus is on "getting students out, getting them out at low cost and, most importantly, getting them out with a high-quality degree," said Tony Waldrop, UCF provost.

"I think it's healthy to have this discussion. We've been having it all along," said Waldrop.

UCF's tuition and fees, the percentage of its students who graduate with debt and their debt load all are below national averages -- while its six-year graduation rate is above the national figure, Waldrop added.

That's true across the state university system, which is one of the most affordable in the nation, said spokesman Kim Wilmath.

If Congress approves, the ratings recommended by the president would be tied to federal financial aid by 2018, with students attending "higher performing" schools eligible for bigger aid packages than those enrolling at lower-rated institutions.

Obama acknowledged Congressional approval was no guarantee, however. "We'll have to work on that," he added.

In the past 30 years, the White House said, tuition at public four-year colleges has more than tripled while many states have cut their support for higher education, leading to rising costs for students. The average college borrower, it said, now graduates with $26,000 in debt, burdening them at a time when they are trying to start businesses, grow their families, buy homes or begin saving.

"Even with good jobs, it took Michelle and me a long time to pay off student loans," the president told the crowd in Buffalo.

UCF's Waldrop said he was glad the president highlighted the role state legislatures pay in college costs at public schools. UCF's budget is down $99 million from six years ago, he said, and that has led to tuition increases, including a 1.7 percent hike this year.

The president also said he wants to:

--Create a $1 billion Race to the Top grant to spur states to fund colleges based on "value" rather than enrollment, as is typically done.

--Provide bonuses to colleges that graduate students on Pell grants, which provides aid to the most disadvantaged students.

--Push legislation to demand more academic progress from students receiving federal financial aid.

--Urge colleges to use online programs and other innovations to "offer breakthroughs on cost, quality, or both."

--Expand a program that can cap loan repayment at 10 percent of monthly income.

At Rollins College, the private school in Winter Park, the average student debt load is $21,000, below the national average. And less than 50 percent of graduates leave with debt, as most pay full costs or get help with scholarships and grants, said Steve Booker, financial aid director.

Still, concerns about costs are a common topic of conversation. "We hear it from families, as does every college," he said.

Booker said he's not a big fan of ratings, in general. And he worries the president's plan could limit Pell grant awards to students attending Rollins or other colleges with limited numbers of Pell recipients enrolled. That would just hurt students who would otherwise get a quality education at Rollins, he said.

Still, the ratings might provide a useful starting point for families exploring college costs.

"We want students to do be better consumers and know what they're getting into," he added.

lpostal@tribune.com or 407-420-5273

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(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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