November 18, 2013


Cautious optimism shaped panelists' comments at a town hall Thursday afternoon at the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Ankeny addressing President Barrack Obama's plan to implement a college ratings system.

Citing higher education as a "ticket to the middle class," Mark Mitsui, U.S. Education Department deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, pointed to the rapidly increasing burden of student-loan debt as one of the most significant challenges facing graduates.

"College today has never been more expensive," said Mitsui. "Many students are afraid even to pursue a higher education at all because they think it's too expensive."

Yet, despite being one of the "most important investments" an individual can make, "clear and useful information about the cost and quality of different colleges is often hard to find," he added.

The Obama administration hopes to change that by implementing a rating system for colleges and then working with Congress to link those ratings to federal funding. The goal is for students attending the schools that provide the best value, as determined by the ratings, to receive the most financial support, whether through larger grants or more affordable loans.

Through this structure, innovative colleges that find new ways to either lower cost or improve the quality of their programs will be rewarded, Mitsui said.

However, there is currently no sketch of what that rating system, which should be implemented by 2015, or the structure to connect the ratings to funding, slated to go into effect in 2018, will look like.

The DMACC town hall was one of a series of public events hosted across the country to seek feedback from students, administrators and teachers on what statistics or measures should be considered in a nation rating system. Current possibilities include college access, as measured by the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; college affordability, as measured by net tuition and loan debt of graduates; student success, as measured by graduation rates; and value, as measured by the earnings of alumni.

Jeremy Varner, Iowa Education Department administrator of the division of community colleges, agreed with Mitsui secondary education is vital in the modern economy.

"The harsh reality is that to maintain Iowa's standard of living in this increasingly competitive world, the state's workforce needs to be better-prepared and more credentialed," he said.

Varner said that the state has been "cautious" in approaching the issue of performance-based funding.

"It's promising and alluring to shift incentives to really push for institutional actions, but it's also really complex work," he said. "It's easy to get it wrong and have unintended consequences. The devil is in the details."

He added that he appreciated the proposal's recognition of the need to "balance access and incomes." Colleges shouldn't feel a need to "choke off" low-income or minority enrollment, which would further hinder upward mobility in the country, or "reduce rigor" to increase graduation rates.

Laurie Wolf, DMACC executive dean of student services, said that colleges already report much of the information required for a ratings system to the federal government, such as graduation rates, employment rates, number of athletes enrolled and crime statistics. Gainful-employment regulations are also requiring colleges to look into various majors and programs and determine how their graduates are faring.

However, she again stressed the need to compare "apples to apples," but more specifically "honeycrisp apples to honeycrisp apples." Not all colleges do the same things with the same resources - specifically, community colleges offer nontraditional transfer or certification programs to students that won't be found on traditional university campuses.

One man in the audience voiced concerns that developing a federal rating system would inevitably politicize education, prioritizing various programs or courses over others. Others repeated concerns that community colleges by their nature could not compete across the board with elite four-year universities.

"These ratings will compare colleges with similar missions, and identify those that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as colleges that are improving their performance," said Mitsui. "We do not want to create disincentives for institutions that serve populations that may be more disadvantaged. It's not good for the country, it's not good for the students."

He also stressed that the system would be one of ratings, not rankings. Colleges would be compared to a set of standards for their classification, not strictly against other colleges within their classifications.

Mitsui also discussed hopes to implement a "pay as you earn" student-loan repayment plan that would allow college students to cap loan payments at 10 percent of their income rather than defaulting.

To add your voice to the conversation, send ideas and concerns to