Obama College Rating System Will Take On U.S. News & World Report

Colleges instead will be ranked in terms of access, graduation rate and affordability, but educators remain unclear about how the system will work.

National Journal

The White House will have a new college rating system available for the school year starting in 2015 that will deliberately run counter to the well-known ranking system produced by U.S. News and World Report, a top White House aide said Thursday.

"We are developing a rating system which is, frankly, intended to compete with U.S. News and World Report, which is the wrong measure," White House Director of Public Policy Cecelia Munoz said at National Journal's Next America Pathways to Success program.

Rather than rating schools based on selectivity, the White House will use metrics of access, completion, and affordability to rank the nation's colleges and universities. "How many students graduate on time? Are they able to pay off their loans," Munoz said.

The White House proposal, unveiled earlier this year, hasn't received much attention in the wake of the government shutdown and implementation of President Obama's health care law. Munoz brushed off a question about whether the debacle of the health care rollout has caused Americans to be less persuaded by the need for government intervention for colleges. "This conversation gets entangled sometimes in ideology, which isn't relevant to how education happens," she said.

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Even without the distractions of a dysfunctional Washington government, educators have been scratching their heads since August when the president promoted the new college ratings plan in a whirlwind tour through upstate New York. They wondered exactly how it would work, particularly when the real game changer in the proposal--tying federal money for colleges to the new ratings--won't occur unless Congress approves it (a big 'if') and is set to begin two years after Obama leaves office.

Munoz acknowledged that the lack of detail about how the White House will measure a college's efficacy has frustrated some in the higher education community. But, she said, the reason has been precisely for the purpose of engaging the educators who understand the system most in designing the system. "Everybody understands that this is a conversation we need to have, and it's hard to get there," she said.

The biggest challenges for universities over the next several decades will be the demographic shift from a majority-white student population to a majority-minority one. "Latinos alone now make up 25 percent of all U.S. public school students and represent the largest racial or ethnic minority group on college campuses in the U.S.," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who also spoke at the event. "But despite our growing numbers, graduation and attainment rates for minorities are still lingering behind."

The Lumina Foundation produced a disturbing report earlier this year showing that only 19 percent of Hispanics have a college degree and 27 percent of African Americans, compared with 43 percent of whites. Without intervention, the problem will literally multiply as Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the United States population.

Menendez used a big part of his speech to push for one of his biggest legislative priorities, comprehensive immigration reform. He stopped short at advocating that the president use his executive authority to provide de facto legal status to a broad swath of undocumented immigrants.

"The only thing stopping immigration reform from happening is a vote in the House of Representatives," Menendez said. "I can't really call on the president, with a law that is binding right now, to simply ignore all aspects of the existing law."

Munoz did not address the question of executive authority to legalize unauthorized immigrants, but Obama and his aides have repeatedly said they do not have the authority to act unilaterally on that front.

However, the White House is well aware of the broader problems that stem from the increasingly diverse and changing population. The president incorporates that viewpoint in to all of his economic policies, Munoz said.

"The president does not have an agenda for Latinos over here and for African Americans over here and for women over here and for the rest of the country over here," she said. "This is not a conversation about altruism. ...It's not about being nice to folks."