If colleges and universities were rated as President Obama proposed Thursday, the University at Buffalo would score quite well in at least one area – its graduation rate. UB ranks fourth out of 15 similar universities nationwide, with slightly more than 70 percent of its students graduating in six years or less.
Likewise, Niagara University also would get high marks for its graduation rate, which is about 67 percent – placing it third out of 15 institutions most similar to the private university.
Graduation rates would be one of several factors included in a federal rating system the president proposed, although all the details have yet to be worked out.
Educational leaders here and elsewhere were generally warm to the president’s intent but withheld full endorsement until the details are fully explained.
They cautioned that graduation rates sometimes can be misleading, especially for vocational programs at community colleges and that if too much emphasis is placed on graduation rates, colleges may seek only one kind of student - the well-to-do.
“To the extent that we emphasize graduation rates as the metric, we’re going to encourage colleges to get more affluent students,” said Anthony P. Carnavale, director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, because they are more likely to afford to graduate on time.
And Jack Quinn, president of Erie Community College, pointed to one program at ECC – computer numeric control machining, the modern version of what was once known as tool and die. It offers students a certificate, but not a diploma, after one year. The program, which he said has a 100 percent job placement rate, provides students jobs paying $22.50 an hour after attending classes for one year.
Those students are successful, Quinn said, but if they were measured only in terms of graduation, they would be considered failures.
The president, though, isn’t finished with his higher education proposal, outlined Thursday in Buffalo. He plans to solicit ideas from students, college officials, state leaders and others in working out the details.
“We’re going to start rating colleges not just by which college is the most selective,” Obama told the crowd at UB. “What we want to do is rate them by which is offering the best value, so students and taxpayers get the best bang for their buck.”
The rating system is intended to encourage institutions to help more students graduate on time, provide opportunities to more disadvantaged students and make college more affordable.
“There are schools out there that are terrific,” Obama said. “But there are also schools out there with higher default rates than graduation rates.”
While the details have yet to be determined, White House representatives identified several measures that will likely be factored into the rating system. They include: the percentage of low-income students at a college, as measured by those receiving Pell grants; affordability, as measured by tuition and average debt; and outcomes, measured by graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings and advanced degrees of graduates.
If the president’s proposal is implemented, prospective college students and their families will be able to readily access more information about the affordability and performance of colleges and universities in the country. And eventually, federal aid to those schools could be tied to their ratings – by 2018, Obama hopes. Such a change would require approval from Congress.
The president also called for colleges and universities to do more to foster innovation to provide higher quality instruction at lower costs. He cited as ripe for replication programs such as massive open online courses, three-year accelerated programs and hybrid courses that combine online lectures with in-class projects.
In the higher-education community, reaction was mixed. Leaders of two local institutions were supportive for the concept of providing more information to students – but emphasized that the details of the rating system will be very telling.
“The more information there is, the better,” said UB President Satish K. Tripathi. “But I don’t know the details. There are two things I feel one has to consider. One is the data has to be put in the right context. Second, the data has to be accurate.”
Quinn, at ECC, also supported the idea of making more information readily available. And, like Tripathi, he said he has no objections to the concept of being rated based on success. But Quinn said the measure of success for community colleges should not be distilled to the single factor of graduation rates. “A lot of our students come to us never intending to get a diploma,” he said.
National experts and higher-education advocacy groups similarly offered general support for providing students with more information and reining in the cost of college – but many also sounded notes of caution.
Tying federal aid to graduation rates is likely to have an unintended consequence – colleges will try harder to recruit affluent students, who are more likely to graduate, said Georgetown’s Carnavale.
Carnavale also criticized the idea of focusing on the average earnings of all the graduates of a college. A better approach, he said, would be to look at the average earnings of graduates of particular majors.
“What really matters is the earnings among people who majored in the same program you did,” Carnavale said. “You can graduate in petroleum engineering making $80,000 a year. You can graduate in counseling and make $30,000. You can graduate in liberal arts and make $40,000. If you average them all together, the number you get makes no sense.”
The Institute for College Access and Success praised Obama’s interest in measuring access, affordability and quality but also said steps must be taken to ensure that those who are most in need would be served.
“These proposals must be developed carefully so that the very efforts intended to increase college access and success for low- and moderate-income students don’t have the unintended effect of pushing those students out or to schools where they’re unlikely to be served well,” said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the national group.
“For example, bonuses should be given to schools that serve low-income students well, not to those that graduate them with degrees they cannot use.”