A new federal plan meant to combat rising college costs would have colleges ranked according to access, affordability and outcomes by the start of the 2015 school year, and would begin tying federal aid to college performance shortly thereafter, according to an announcement from President Barack Obama last month.

Under the plan, students attending colleges that rank high on the federal ratings system could receive larger federal grants and more affordable student loans.

The plan and its one-size-fits-all rating system is ill-conceived, said University of Wyoming President Bob Sternberg.

“One set of guidelines simply won’t work,” Sternberg said. “There isn’t a metric that’s right for everyone, anymore than there’s a metric that’s right in choosing cars, or houses, or anything else.”

Obama’s plan to make college more affordable involves, first of all, a new college ratings system to be developed and published by the U.S. Department of Education. All colleges and universities — whether four-year, two-year, private or public — would be ranked according to measures such as average tuition, loan debt, graduation rates, post-graduation earnings and the percent of a college’s student body receiving Pell grants — the needs-based federal grant program for low-income college-goers.

Obama directed the agency to begin developing the ratings system last month and to publish its results before the 2015 school year, according to a White House report.

As early as next year, the report said, the Obama administration will begin lobbying for federal aid to be allocated to schools based on the ratings.

Judging from the failure of No Child Left Behind’s attempt to distribute federal aid to public schools based on performance, Sternberg said, this could be counterproductive.

“We don’t need to do to our colleges what we did to our elementary and middle schools,” Sternberg said.

Obama’s plan assumes that one set of standards can assess quality for all colleges, Sternberg said. Students, however, choose colleges based on so many different factors — proximity to home, secular or religious affiliation, program choice, for instance — that a rating system focusing mainly on economic value may leave out other, noneconomic factors that play a big role in a student’s decision about college.

For Sternberg, that means a college’s mission. To leave UW’s mission as a land-grant university out of the ranking equation entirely, he said, is a poor choice.

“The goal of increasing access and the goal of outreach is a great goal,” he said. “But the way of getting there isn’t by getting one metric that ranks schools.”

Community colleges

Under Obama’s proposal, students can choose whatever college they want, according to the White House report. Taxpayer dollars, however, will be steered toward high-performing schools that provide the best value.

Much of the proposal has yet to play out on the stage of Congress, as Obama acknowledged when announcing his plan at a speech at the University at Buffalo in New York last month. Some parts of the plan he can implement on his own, Obama said. Others will require congressional support.

And while much of the discussion is still tentative, it’s a conversation already underway at community colleges in Wyoming, saidWyoming Community College Commission Executive Director Jim Rose.

“Community colleges have been really seriously ... looking at some of these measures, and the emphasis on performance and student access for some time,” Rose said.

Still, he said, Obama’s proposal shines light on issues that need improvement in higher education. Take, for instance, community college completion rates, he said.

“We acknowledge we aren’t moving [students] through fast enough,” Rose said. “Our relative rate of completion is not where it should be.”

Though the proposal’s details have yet to be worked out, its impact may be greater on community colleges than on four-year universities, he said. If federal aid is tied to metrics like timely graduation, he said, community colleges may be at risk of losing more aid than four-year universities, where students are more likely to be full-time and graduate in four years.

In proposing his plan, Obama cited figures on rising college costs. Over the past 30 years, he said, the average tuition at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent. Incomes for typical families, on the other hand, grew by 16 percent during that time.

Each year, the federal government provides more than $150 billion in student financial aid. States collectively provide about $70 billion, according to the White House report.

Reach county reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or leah.todd@trib.com.

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