Obama: Feds Will Define What a Good College Is, Punish and Reward Accordingly

Terence P. Jeffrey | August 22, 2013 | 1:50pm EDT
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President Barack Obama at the University of Buffalo on Aug. 22, 2013, explaining his plan to have the federal government rate colleges. (AP Photo/Keith Srackocic)

(CNSNews.com) - Speaking at the University of Buffalo, President Barack Obama today unveiled an ambitious new plan for the federal government to create a national rating system that will define what a good college is and financially reward or punish colleges depending on how they rank in the government’s system.

He said he intends to have the rating system in placed by the fall of 2015 and intends to work with Congress to enact legislation linking federal aid to colleges to the rating system.

As outlined by Obama, this rating system would look at essentially materialistic and financial characteristics of a college as opposed to intellectual and moral ones.

For example, as the president described it, the rating system will not measure how many of a school’s graduates go on to become exemplary and virtuous in the conduct of their personal and public lives, but it will measure things such as “how many students graduate on time,” “how well do those graduates do in the work force,” whether the college is “helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed,” and “how successful colleges are at enrolling and graduating students who are on Pell Grants."

Federal Pell Grants are gifts of cash--not loans--that the federal government gives to some students, but not others. They are not based on academic merit but on whether a student's income and his or her parents' income is low enough to qualify the family as what the Department of Education calls "low-income."

When a student's family's income goes up, the student may no longer qualify for the Pell Grant.

Thus, Obama's proposed system of rating colleges, because it would give a college a higher rating for "enrolling and graduating students who are on Pell Grants," would give a college an incentive for admitting, maintaining and graduating students whose families keep their income low, but not for admitting, maintaining, and graduating students whose families do not maintain a federally certified "low-income" status.

“Our ratings have to be carefully designed to increase not decrease the opportunities for higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages,” said Obama.

“My plan comes down to three main goals,” said Obama. “First, we are going to start rating colleges, not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not by which college has the nicest facilities. You can get all that on the existing rating systems. What we want to do is rate them on who is offering the best value so that students and taxpayers get a better bang for their buck.

“Number two, we are going to jump start new competition between colleges, not just on the field or on the court, but in terms of innovation that encourages affordability and encourages student success and doesn’t sacrifice educational quality,” said Obama.

“And the third is we are going to make sure if you have to take on debt to earn your college degree that you have ways to manage and afford it,” he said.

“Today, I am directing Arne Duncan, our secretary of education, to lead an effort to develop a new rating system for America’s colleges before the 2015 college year,” Obama said. “Right now, private rankings like the U.S. News and World Report, puts out each year their rankings—and it encourages a lot of colleges to focus on ways to--how do we game the numbers, and you know it actually rewards them in some cases for raising costs.

“I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity,” said Obama. “Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed? And on outcomes--on their value to students and parents. So that means metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with? How easy is it to pay off? How many students graduate on time? How well do those graduates do in the work force? Because the answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers.”

“And our ratings will also measure how successful colleges are at enrolling and graduating students who are on Pell grants. And, it will be my firm principle that our ratings have to be carefully designed to increase not decrease the opportunities for higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages.

Obama said his plan would “give any college the chance to show it is making serious and consistent improvement. So, a college may not be where it needs to be right now on value, but they will have time to try to get better.”

“Over the next few years,” he said, “we are going to work with Congress to use these ratings to change how we allocate federal aid to colleges.”

According to a report released this week by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 71.4 percent of full-time undergraduate students receive some form of federal aid, and on average undergraduates receiving federal aid get $10,500 in a school year. That aid includes federal Pell grants, direct federal student loans and federally backed work study programs.

There are significantly more private colleges and universities in the United States then public ones, according to data published by the NCES. In the fall of 2010, says NCES there were 4,589 post-secondary schools in the United States granting associate’s degrees and higher. These included 1,652 public schools, and 2,937 private schools.

In the 1984 case of Grove City College v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruled that even though Grove City College did not take any federal aid the fact that some Grove City students received federal grants allowed the federal government to impose regulations on the college itself. Thus, even if a private college refuses to take any federal money, so long as its students get money from the federal government the federal government can use that as justification for regulating the private college.

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