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University presidents oppose Obama’s college grading system

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If the Obama Administration’s plan for a higher education rating system goes forward as is, University of Mary Washington President Rick Hurley fears his campus might become a less-diverse, less-accessible institution.

“We have funds designated for recruiting underrepresented populations,” he said. “I could see having to redirect those funds to merit-based scholarships [if the rating system is instituted]. Merit is a good measure of success, but it’s only one measure. I believe a more diverse student body creates a better learning environment.”

Hurley, also the president of the Virginia Council of Presidents, signed a letter backed by 50 Virginia college presidents that was sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urging the administration to rethink the rating system.

It’s a rare collaboration between colleges, public and private, four-year and community colleges, and includes presidents of diverse campuses such as the College of William & Mary, James Madison University, Virginia State University, Piedmont Virginia Community College and Roanoke College, to name a few.

The letter states that while the presidents support efforts to make education more affordable, “we have serious reservations.”

The rating system is a measure by federal government to hold higher education institutions accountable by creating a government-sponsored list like those by private companies, such as the Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report.

To create that ranking, schools would need to prove their worthiness of federal aid in the midst of rising tuition and poor job opportunities after college.

The letter lists three primary concerns: that low-income or nontraditional populations would be disadvantaged under the current proposal, that the weight the rating places on income of graduates is counter to the principles of American higher education and that graduation rates are the wrong way of basing ratings, since the system of calculating those rates is widely regarded as flawed.

“We urge careful consideration of the unintended consequences and incentives that would result from the proposed new system,” the letter said. “In order to be successful, institutions would be under pressure to increase graduation rates by enrolling higher income students and to graduate students who enter high-paying professions. This unintended consequence would be especially true if there is a linkage of the federal student aid to the new rating system.”

Hurley said it’s not an issue of accountability.

“We’re not afraid of that,” he said. “We answer to a lot of agencies. There is a lot of already-available data on each institution in Virginia.”

The letter follows similar opposition from other states.

Hurley said he hopes the federal government listens carefully to their concerns and to those of other systems that have written, as well.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976