Education Secretary: Colleges Need Grades Too

Arne Duncan previews Obama's plan for grading universities at TIME's Education Summit

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Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks at the TIME Summit On Higher Education Day 2 at the Time Warner Center on September 20, 2013 in New York City

In August, the Obama administration announced plans for a new college rating system to be implemented by the 2015 school year that would eventually determine federal funding for various institutions. “Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high quality education are the ones that are going to see their tax payer funding go up,” President Obama said in a speech outlining the plan at the University of New York at Buffalo. “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results.”

The rating system, the Administration hopes, will help students and parents figure out which colleges offer the best chance of graduating and the best value.

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The president’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, discussed the plan with leaders in government and higher education at a TIME magazine summit on Friday.

The Administration’s objective is to make college more accessible and affordable for students from different backgrounds. Duncan hopes to address concerns that America’s college graduation rates have not kept pace with the rest of the world. “A generation ago, we led the world in college graduation rates,” he said, “now we are 12.” To succeed in America, it has become increasingly important to get a college degree. In an earlier panel, according to Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, only 40% of jobs in America can be done with just a high school degree, and two thirds of those jobs pay an annual salary of $25,000 or less. Duncan said the jobs that once gave high school graduates a living wage are “not coming back.”

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That’s why the rating system, which has yet to be developed, will focus on helping the most needy students who are less likely to graduate from college. The system will look primary at “three performance buckets: access [to needy students], percentage of students getting Pell grants, and affordability,” Duncan said. It will measure these against outcomes like graduation rates, graduate earnings, and the number of graduates earning advanced degrees. Duncan declined to offer any specifics on how the Administration would consider post-graduate employment in their ratings. “Whether you choose Wall Street or the Peace Corps, do you have the skills you need to do what you want to do?,” he said.

The plan has been met with mixed reactions from members of the higher education community, some of whom are concerned that colleges could be penalized in the ratings for serving the most needy kids, the exact group that the rating system is designed to help. “Believe me,” said Duncan, “I’m aware if this is not done well, the college rating system could create unintended consequences. We are beginning this system with a sense of humility.” To ease concerns that the schools could be penalized for the difficult task of educating a larger share of disadvantaged students, Duncan said they would only compare colleges with similar missions, avoiding “apples to oranges” comparisons, and would weigh improvement in performance at various schools as carefully as absolute outcomes. “We’re more interested in where you are going then where you have been,” he said.

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