Colleges nationwide await details on a federal ranking system

President Barack Obama addresses college presidents at a summit this spring. Hatchet File Photo
President Barack Obama addresses college leaders at a summit this spring. Hatchet File Photo
A federal college rating system could dictate financial aid allocations based on how well institutions improve affordability and how accessible they are to lower-income applicants – areas GW has pinpointed as priorities this year.

The White House’s idea would link indicators such as a college’s graduation rate over time or number of first generation college students to whether it can receive funding from Pell Grants or other federal loans, several experts said. The idea, introduced last August, has gained steam this summer as the Department of Education pushes for ways to enact the proposal.

The department is expected to release a template of the system by the end of the year, said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies college rankings and financial aid.

If the government launches a ranking system, colleges that do not reach certain standards on indicators like graduation rates, cost of attendance or percentage of students receiving Pell Grants would lose their eligibility to receive federal funding for financial aid.

But without more details about what the system will look like, it’s hard to tell what sort of effect it would have on universities, Kelchen said.

“There are concerns about whether this is letting the camel’s nose under the tent too much,” Kelchen said. “It could open them up to more regulations in the future.”

If institutions are already focused on improving those metrics, though, the effect could be smaller, he said, adding that a federal system might not replace the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings, considered the gold standard of college rankings.

GW launched two task forces this year that were charged with tackling the issues in higher education that President Barack Obama has highlighted.

University President Steven Knapp created an access and success task force in January, after attending a summit at the White House focused on college affordability. Provost Steven Lerman also launched the University’s largest study into its graduation rate this winter. GW’s rate has hovered around 80 percent for the last five years.

Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said more selective institutions, like GW, would not be strongly impacted by a federal ranking system because fewer students receive Pell Grants. About 14 percent of GW students received the grants this year.

Kelly said less selective institutions are much more likely to be concerned, since their students are typically from the area of their college and receive Pell Grants, and those students are less likely to use ranking materials.

“The majority of students attend colleges that are close to home, so the idea that all of a sudden students are going to shop around doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.

Obama has faced fierce opposition to his administration’s idea. Some university presidents have opposed a national college ranking system, likely because they fear losing control over their institutions’ goals and priorities, Kelcher said. A bipartisan group of congressmen and a group of Republicans in the Senate have also attempted to block such a system.

Paul Hassen, director of communications and marketing at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said many groups have also opposed the system because there are too many questions the government has failed to address.

The government already scores colleges on a scorecard, which is available online, and Hassen said many wonder if an additional system is necessary.

“Do we need another system on top of this?” Hassen asked. “And who’s going to pay for this, who picks up the extra cost of supplying this information to the federal government?”

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