Napolitano pushes changes in college rating plan

University of California President and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano wants the Education Department to include all students, including transfers, in rating the nation’s universities.

In a letter to Education Secretary Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanStripping opportunity from DC's children Catherine Lhamon will make our schools better, fairer, and more just Providing the transparency parents deserve MORE, Napolitano commented on the department’s draft framework for rating two-year and four-year institutions.

Instead of ranking schools numerically, the Education Department has proposed rating colleges and universities as one of three performing categories: high performing, low performing and those that fall in the middle, and grouping two-year and four-colleges separately.

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But Napolitano said narrowing the rating system down to two groups might be too basic.

“Within four-year institutions alone, for example, the cost structures, student demographics, and assets/endowments of private institutions may allow for more robust financial aid programs than those possible for most public institutions, which maintain a mission of educating large numbers of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” she wrote in the letter.

Instead, she recommended separately grouping and assessing public and private schools. She went on to question the department’s plan to use-short-term earnings of alumni as a metric for rating an institution’s labor market success.

“Limiting the evaluation of earnings for recently-graduated alumni to a threshold measure of “substantial employment” will help avoid devaluing the contributions of those students who seek employment in the public service or non profit sectors shortly after graduation,” she said.

Above all, Napolitano said she’s most concerned about how students who incur substantial levels of debt will impact an institution’s rating. She suggested a mechanism, instead to identify poorly performing institutions and recommended the department flag universities with high default rates, unsustainable levels of student debt and low completion rates.

“We believe that any rating system must be eminently useful, not only for providing information to students, families, consumers, and the public, but also for protecting the integrity of the federal government’s investment in student financial aid,” she said.

Republican lawmakers have blasted the proposed rating system, calling it “unnecessary and a “fool’s errand.”

When the draft framework was released in December, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said the Obama administration is trying to arbitrarily grade and rank the nation’s diverse system of colleges and universities.