Duncan on New College Ratings System: 'I Can Promise You, We Won't Do It Perfectly'

Susan Jones | October 24, 2013 | 6:22am EDT
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Education Secretary Arne Duncan (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - A new system for rating colleges based on access, affordability and outcomes doesn't exist yet, but it's coming soon -- despite the concerns of college administrators, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a gathering at the Treasury Department on Wednesday.

"And the goal is, about a year from now, next fall, to go back to the president with a rating system and then going forward, by 2018, to actually start tying some financial aid to outcomes. And that's a scary thought, it's a pretty radical thought," Duncan said.

"I can promise you, we won't do it perfectly, it's something we need to continue to improve, but in a world where we are using scarce taxpayer dollars, $150 billion, all based on inputs (student grants and loans), I don't think anyone can defend the current system as the best that we can offer to young people, to the country."

Duncan admitted that creating a college ratings system will be "complex" and "not without controversy."

"I'm very aware of the potential risk of perverse incentives or disincentives if we don't do this as spotlessly as I'd like," he said, adding that he'll spend the next few months "doing a massive amount of listening across the country" and "having conversations with higher-ed leaders across the country."

"We're coming to this with a great deal of humility," he said.

Despite the nation's "amazing range" of higher-education choices, "we have a wildly inefficient marketplace," Duncan said. There are "too many young folks who think they can't afford to go to college" and there are "far too many young people picking the wrong schools for the wrong reasons."  

The question, Duncan said, is "how do we help young people and their families make better choices?"

Duncan then mentioned some of the "values we want to look for in a rating system."

Increasing access to college "is at the top of the list," Duncan said. "And we want to make sure whatever we come up with, we're encouraging more universities to take more young people who come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, who are first- generation college-goers. If we come up with a rating system that somehow discourages that, we will have done a grave disservice to the country. "

(But as CNSNews.com previously reported, awarding colleges higher federal ratings and increased federal aid for admitting a higher percentage of low-income students who receive federal Pell Grants would encourage colleges to discriminate against applicants who come from families with total incomes of $60,000 or more. The Obama plan also would reward colleges for having higher overall graduation rates and for graduating a higher number of students on Pell Grants--which could provide colleges with an incentive to lower the academic standards for earning a diploma.)

The second value Duncan mentioned is "affordability," Duncan said. He pointed to a report showing that tuition costs are rising at a lower rate: "But still, the cost of college is wildly unaffordable for far too many -- not just disadvantaged communities but for middle-class families who are thinking college is for rich folks, not for them."

The third criteria for a ratings system is "outcomes," Duncan said: "And I'm really interested in looking, you know, where college graduation rates going up, where university is doing a good job in term of jobs placements, where they're doing a good job of helping young people pay back their loans at the back end."

Duncan said that tying financial aid to "outcomes" is "a scary thought, it's a pretty radical thought. But again, I can promise you, we won't do it perfectly, it's something we need to continue to improve..."

"So it's an exciting time, a tremendous amount of work to do. None of this will be easy. None of this will be without controversy. But if we can drive down the cost of college, if we can help more young people afford to go to higher education, if we can help them make better choices, more informed choices, greater transparency, we think an already fantastic system, again, the leading system in the world, could be much stronger at the back end of this."

Duncan spoke at a meeting of President Obama's Financial Literacy and Education Commission. He was joined by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray.

Also see:
Obama Administration Is ‘Strengthening’ Colleges It May Later Reward Under New Ratings System

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