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APLU Urges Obama Administration to Reject College Ratings Plan & Embrace Real Transparency and Accountability Reform

Association Responds to Department of Education’s Request for Comments on Ratings Plan; Proposes an Alternative Way to Increase Transparency and Accountability of Higher Education Institutions

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) today formally urged the Obama administration to shift away from its plan to develop a college ratings system and instead adopt the association’s ratings-free proposal as a more effective approach to increase college transparency and strengthen accountability in order to protect students and their families as well as taxpayers.

“We agree with the administration’s broad goals, but fear that its focus on a college ratings system threatens to undermine a much-needed opportunity to improve transparency and accountability in a meaningful way,” APLU President Peter McPherson said. “The administration would be well-served to move away from a complex college ratings system plan with its numerous technical challenges and near certain inaccuracies. Instead we urge the administration to embrace a practical plan for transparency and accountability reform. APLU’s plan provides an effective path forward that would ensure students and their families as well as the general public have greater access to key, accurate data about institutions. Our plan also offers a straightforward way to create a stronger process to determine institutional eligibility for federal aid. Doing so would help protect student tuition dollars and taxpayer funding from going to schools that do a very poor job of preparing students for life after college while burdening them with significant amounts of debt.”

In its formal response to the administration’s request for comments on the New System of College Ratings Framework that was released in December 2014, APLU detailed its College Transparency & Accountability Plan, which has two core components:

The first core component is to increase transparency. APLU proposes the use of four key metrics in either an improved College Scorecard or another user-friendly government reporting site:

  1. Student progress and graduation rates – using the Student Achievement Measure (SAM) when available instead of the far less accurate federal graduation rate.
  2. Median net price by income, which would help students and their families understand the level of support through grants and loans they can expect based on their financial situation.
  3. Employment rates and enrollment in advanced degree programs that track the success of students after they leave an institution.
  4. Loan repayment rates, which correlates with successful post-graduation employment.

APLU notes it is critical for the administration to ensure the improved data reaches students for increased transparency to be fully effective. The association suggests that the administration explore requiring institutions that receive federal aid to post a link to the transparency information on their university websites. Other possibilities for increasing awareness of such data could include partnering with high schools, college access organizations, or social media campaigns.

The second core component of APLU’s plan focuses on strengthening the Title IV eligibility process that determines which higher education institutions qualify for part of the $150 billion allocated annually for federal student aid. Under the current outdated system, only a very small handful of schools lose their eligibility each year while others continue to enroll students receiving federal aid despite those institutions having a very poor record of academic success and high debt figures among former students.

To revitalize the Title IV eligibility process, and in turn create a real system of accountability, APLU proposes that institutions be judged on three critical metrics:

  1. Student progress and completion rates using SAM when available instead of the federal graduation rates.
  2. Post-collegiate employment and outcomes: tracking employment rates, enrollment in an advanced level of education, and military service as indicators of the quality of the education provided by an institution.
  3. Loan repayment rates: Measuring student repayment of federal loan debt is important in assessing whether an institution is successfully preparing students for their post-collegiate lives without undue debt burden and ensuring taxpayers aren’t left to pay off such debt.

Given the diversity of students enrolled in postsecondary education, APLU notes that institutional outcomes cannot be evaluated without taking into consideration the level of preparation and entering characteristics of an institution’s student body. In order to fairly compare all institutions, APLU recommends the creation of a student readiness adjustment, which would account for various factors of an institution’s student body. Such an adjustment method would enable policymakers to judge institutions on a more equal playing field.

After adjusting for student readiness, very low performing institutions would be subjected to closer scrutiny and the possibility of sanctions that could result in partial or full withdrawal of future Title IV funds. Any sanctions would need to be carefully constructed to minimize any negative impact on current and future students – for example an institution could be required to cover the loss of Title IV funding. The same process outlined above could be used to identify institutions performing much better than expected with their underrepresented or disadvantaged students, including Pell grant recipients. Those institutions could be rewarded with additional federal funding to further support the success of such students.

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