Higher ed leaders talk ratings with Secretary Duncan

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A handful of the AFT's higher education local leaders, in Washington, D.C., for an AFT program and policy council meeting Jan. 23, sat down with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some of his staff to share observations from faculty and academic staff regarding the Obama administration's latest policy idea—a national rating system that ties federal financial aid distribution to institutional performance. The AFT is the only faculty organization that has met with Duncan and his staff on this issue.

President Obama unveiled his proposal last summer. The U.S. Department of Education would collect data on factors such as graduation rates, graduate earnings, the number of students receiving Pell Grants and average student loan debt. Starting in 2018, the department would use that information to determine how much aid an institution's students would qualify for. The goal is to increase access, reduce costs and improve outcomes in higher education.

The response from the higher education world—which has been dubious for decades about the findings of the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings issue—has been underwhelming. A poll conducted by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed in December, for example, showed that 65 percent of college presidents felt the plan was not a good idea. While affirming the validity of the goals of access and affordability, educators worry that the plan won't be an effective way to achieve them. They also worry that the effect of the plan will be to reward the more affluent institutions and students, and cut back on institutions serving lower socioeconomic groups and nontraditional students. This would deprive the very group that needs more resources to ensure students complete college successfully.

These were some of the points AFT leaders underscored, while also describing the great diversity of the institutions in which our members work and the students they encounter daily in the classroom. Former AFT Washington President and AFT Vice President Sandra Schroeder expressed the "grave concerns" of her members about the plan. Derryn Moten, co-president of the Faculty-Staff Alliance at Alabama State University, said a rankings system could inadequately take into account the mission of historically black colleges and universities like ASU, which is to educate underprepared students who other institutions might "deem unfit for college."

Focusing constructively on what works, Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions at the State University of New York and an AFT vice president, pointed out that programs like SUNY's Educational Opportunity Program have shown remarkable success because of the work of staff and targeted support. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York and an AFT vice president, drew parallels with the ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) program at CUNY, which uses expert staff and resources to help students achieve.

Community colleges exemplify the host of motivations driving their nontraditional students to come through their doors, noted John McDonald, president of the Henry Ford Community College Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president. Bonnie Halloran, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is president of the Lecturers' Employee Organization there, discussed the challenges of trying to track students and lump together the varied backgrounds of students served by UM's Dearborn, Flint and Ann Arbor campuses. [Barbara McKenna, Tor Cowan, Jennifer Scully. AFT Photo]

January 24, 2014