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College ratings system may rank loan repayments, graduation statistics

New college ratings system meant to rank 'quality, accessibility, affordability and outcomes'

The Obama administration on Friday is releasing the rough outlines of a much-anticipated college ratings system that may grade schools on such factors as graduation rates, loan repayments and post-graduation income. Many details remain to be decided over the next few months, with some wary colleges and universities sure to protest any measurements that might hurt their reputations.

Without committing to any criteria, the U.S. Department of Education listed factors that it said could wind up in the final ratings system expected to be completed by the start of the 2015-16 school year. Those included the average net price after financial aid, federal loan defaults, the percentages of students who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college, and enrollment in graduate programs.

Officials emphasized that any grading system would not numerically rank schools or assign them A-F grades but instead would probably place them in such categories as high-performing, average or low. Special attention would be given to schools that improve.

Addressing concerns that the proposal could hurt schools that enroll large numbers of low-income students, Department of Education leaders said they may group schools by admissions selectivity and program offerings so that, for example, a Cal State does not compete against an Ivy League campus or an engineering college with one that mainly trains teachers and social workers.

Ted Mitchell, the U.S. undersecretary of Education who oversees higher-education issues, described the framework as "a work in progress" and said he was confident the final system would provide clear measurements on "elemental building blocks of quality, accessibility, affordability and outcomes."

In an interview, Mitchell said the plan's grouping of colleges would "avoid creating perverse incentives" such as schools pushing out low-income students or dropping majors that may not lead to very lucrative careers. And he said that four-year schools that grant bachelor's degrees would be judged separately from two-year community colleges that offer associate's degrees.

President Obama first suggested a ratings system in August 2013 to help families compare schools and to help taxpayers judge whether the massive federal investments in financial aid and other grants are worthwhile.

The ratings proposal progressed more slowly that anticipated, with much lobbying by some worried schools and opposition from Republicans who described it as an unnecessary bureaucracy. The Obama administration wanted to publicly present a framework before the end of the fall semester; experts noted that was accomplished with no time to spare, as most schools are closing for winter break.

Mitchell said it took much work to winnow down possible criteria and to test databases for reliable information. A public comment period will extend through Feb. 17 (at collegefeedback@ed.gov) and more meetings with academics will be held after that.

Among the decisions ahead is whether colleges will be evaluated in all the categories or just given one evaluation.

Some critics have predicted any system will be unworkable since important data on incomes and transfer students are not easily available. But others, particularly public universities, said they welcomed the transparency.

"Change is hard," said Mitchell, former president of Occidental College and the California state Board of Education. Yet he added that many colleges were accustomed to such ratings as U.S. News & World Report's.

Michael V. Reilly, executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he was pleased that the plan seemed to address concerns of schools with large populations of low-income students. But Reilly said many colleges remain anxious about future details and question the ratings' usefulness for students who are locked into attending only schools close to home. A low score will "embarrass the local schools" without offering alternatives to families, he said

Peter McPherson, president of the Assn. of Public and Land-grant Universities, said he supported the plan's general thrust but wanted to ensure that it accounted for the part-time and transfer students who make up a large portion of state schools.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

Twitter: @larrygordonlat

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