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

Susan Jones | October 23, 2013 | 8:45am EDT
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President Obama takes the stage at the University at Buffalo on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 to announce a new college ratings system that will influence which schools get federal student aid. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s Education Department recently announced that it is sending 39 lesser-known colleges a total of $20.1 million this year as part of the government's “Strengthening Institutions Program.”

The grant money may be used for planning, faculty development, building an endowment, or boosting academic programs.

The Strengthening Institutions Program helps colleges and community colleges “expand their capacity to serve low-income students by providing funds to improve and strengthen the academic quality, institutional management, and fiscal stability of eligible institutions.”

Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont – a four-year liberal arts college that promotes “environmental sustainability” – said it would use its share of the grant money to fund a project called "Strategies for Student Success," which school officials describe as a "model program for how all students can flourish."

Helping students graduate and get a good job or a graduate degree are two elements of a new college ratings system announced in August by President Obama.

President Obama said his college ratings system will help students and families select schools that provide the “best value. After the ratings system is well established, “Congress can tie federal student aid to college performance so that students maximize their federal aid at institutions providing the best value,” the White House website says.

In other words, the federal government can’t set tuition rates, but it can used federal student aid as leverage.  As the White House put it, “President Obama’s plan will connect student aid to outcomes, which will in turn drive a better, more affordable education for all students.”

But even before the government’s college ratings system is in place, the Obama administration is sending millions of taxpayer dollars to colleges that serve a "substantial number" of low-income students, essentially strengthening those colleges so they might have a better chance of being rated a “best value” when the ratings system takes effect.

Green Mountain College says the Education Department is giving it $2 million over five years ($399,950 in the first year of the five-year grant program). The college says it makes the environment a "unifying theme across the curriculum."  Among other things, it offers a master's degree in "Sustainable Food Systems."

"At the end of their undergraduate careers, GMC students are able to articulate a positive vision for a just and sustainable society, and they have the skills and knowledge they need to help make that vision a reality at the personal, local and global levels," the school's website says.

Green Mountain College has 700 undergraduates. Tuition, room and board run about $43,708, but the college says 94 percent of all GMC students currently receive some kind of financial aid. The college says it is committed to helping families pay for a GMC education with an "ambitious multi-year affordability plan."

And it says approximately 25 percent of GMC students are the first in their family to attend a college or university. So this appears to be exactly the kind of college that the Obama administration eventually will reward with “best value” ratings and federal student aid.

Although the new college ratings system is still in the works, President Obama dropped some hints in August, when he  spoke at the University of Buffalo:

He said the new college ratings system will measure whether a school helps students of all backgrounds graduate with good career prospects and manageable debt.

“And then down the road, using these ratings, we’re going to work with Congress to change how we allocate federal aid for college. Because I said this last year, and I meant it, colleges that keep their tuition down while providing a high-quality education, we want to see their taxpayer support go up. We should not be subsidizing schools that are not getting good results for the young people who attend them.”

The college ratings system is supposed to be in place before 2015. The White House said it will be based on measures such as “Access,” which includes the percentage of students receiving need-based Pell Grants; “Affordability,” which will measure average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and “Outcomes,” including graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.

As CNSNews.com previously reported, federal Pell Grants are gifts of cash -- not loans. They are not based on academic merit but on whether a student's income and his or her parents' income is low enough to qualify the family as what the Department of Education calls "low-income."

Essentially, Obama's plan would encourage colleges to discriminate against applicants who come from families with total incomes of $60,000 or more by awarding colleges higher federal ratings and increased federal aid for admitting a higher “percentage” of students who receive federal Pell Grants.

Many of the 39 institutions sharing this year’s 20.1 million are community colleges or technical schools.

The strengthening institutions program is not new: It was authorized under Title III, Part A, Section 311 of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as amended.

In fiscal 2012, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $5.4 million in new grants to 14 colleges and universities as part of the Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP).

SIP did not conduct a grant competition in FY 2011; instead it funded down the FY 2010 slate, making 34 new awards at a cost of 12,965,081.

In FY 2010, SIP conducted a competition and funded 48 new awards totaling $18,216,000.

And in FY 2009, SIP funded 57 new awards from the FY 2008 slate, totaling $21,307,000.

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