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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
University of Saint Francis students take a break in the Pope John Paul II Center.

Colleges mixed on Obama idea to grade them

Accountability wins praise, but ‘devil in details’

The Journal Gazette

– Each school day Sarah Krouse, a college senior, drives from Ohio to attend classes at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, a routine she’s kept for the last two years.

Keenly aware of college costs, Krouse spent her freshman and sophomore years close to home at a more affordable community college near Bryan, Ohio, to save money. Her parents, with whom she lives, help with gas money.

“It’s a bit of a commute but it works out for me, because I’d rather not have that extra debt of living on campus, because it is kind of pricey here,” she said.

A federal plan to help keep costs down was recently announced by President Barack Obama. For their part, colleges agree that it is their responsibility to provide affordable education and be accountable for the federal dollars they spend.

But when it comes to measuring that accountability, as Obama wishes, “The devil is going to be in the details,” said Mark Land, spokesman for Indiana University.

Last month, Obama announced a college rating system that would judge schools on their affordability and other criteria and possibly be used to allocate federal financial aid.

In addition to tuition, schools would be rated on average student loan debt, graduation rates and the average earnings of graduates. Students attending highly rated schools could receive larger grants and more affordable loans.

The president is also seeking legislation to give colleges a bonus based on the number of students they graduate who received Pell Grants. The goal is to encourage colleges to enroll and graduate low- and moderate-income students.

Obama’s other proposals include a requirement that colleges with high dropout rates distribute student aid over the course of the semester rather than in a lump sum. The aim is to ensure that students who drop out do not receive funds for time they are not in school.

Linking money to certain standards for public colleges is not new in Indiana, which ranks 11th highest among states, with an average student loan debt of $27,500, according to a report last year by the Institute for College Access & Success. The state is one of a few that have already installed performance-based formulas for some state funding. The White House took note of Indiana’s work when it issued in mid-August details of Obama’s plan, which came out of the blue for some education officials.

“But in this current atmosphere of what I would call compliance and regulation it wasn’t incredibly surprising,” said Stacy Adkinson, executive vice president of the University of Saint Francis. “In fact the college score card has been something that has been batted around for some years.”

Her concern, Adkinson said, is whether the public is ready for all of the details they’ll be given and what they mean. While the effort is to simplify information to help people make choices, she fears the trend might be to oversimplify.

As general information, Adkinson believes the system could benefit students and their families when they are looking for higher-level information.

“But I think it’s still going to demand that if you’re really interested in an institution, the best choice still is personal contact and interaction with the organization so that you can really not only check the facts but understand the facts,” she said.

Tuition at Saint Francis is $25,180, not including room and board, according to the school’s website.

For student Sarah Krouse, a college rating system that affects how much financial aid a student gets would be beneficial and “would definitely have changed the way I looked a college. Because being able to pay for it is one of my first concerns.”

The concept of affordability and accountability is something Independent Colleges of Indiana agrees with, said Richard Ludwick, president and CEO of the group. The nonprofit association represents 31 private colleges and universities, including the University of Saint Francis. Because member schools don’t get state funding, they are aware of the cost to students and families, he said.

But that doesn’t translate into complete support of Obama’s plan.

“The president’s specific call for a rating system is one that, frankly, I think we would pause initially about, because when you start going down that road of rating institutions it creates a sort of rush to sameness, especially if you were to do it along a limited number of data points,” Ludwick said.

And while job placement might be part of a federal formula, that’s not the only mark of what a career means, Ludwick said. Some graduates might earn a lot of money right away, while other jobs take longer to build income. In addition, careers in public service and the arts, he said, have more societal impact than financial impact.

“So, it’s an easy marker up front but it doesn’t really tell a complete story,” Ludwick said.

Even with a measure of outcomes versus cost of an education, Ludwick believes the private schools would rate highly. About 60 percent of students in private schools graduate in four years compared with about 30 percent of public school students, he said. In addition, the loan debt private school graduates carry after school averages only about $2,500 to $3,000 more than that of public school students, he added.

“Anything that moves away toward a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to higher education certainly will not serve America or Americans in the long run,” Ludwick said.

IU’s Land said his school also would do well under a federal rating system. Because Indiana schools are already under rules that tie funding to performance, it’s an environment they’re familiar with, he said.

But Land said he believes drawing up a federal ratings formula will be “enormously complex.”

“It wouldn’t be right to compare even an IU-Bloomington against an IPFW, for example, just like how are you going to compare IU to Harvard or Stanford, to different schools with different missions?” he said. “It’s impossible to say how we would come out under a system until you see the specifics.”

Formulas should be applied fairly, Adkinson of Saint Francis said, and if they are tied to federal financial aid they must be clear.

“Different populations of students belong at different institutions in some ways. And different institutions offer different opportunities,” Adkinson said. “I think it’s about definitions and making sure that if it starts to get tied to aid, for example, it needs to be very crystal clear and everybody has to play by some of the same rules.”

Krouse plans to keep paying attention to these and other issues important to her. She’s a political science major, and she plans to go into politics.

“So I’ve had a lot of time to think about things like this,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.