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Education Dept. Issues Framework For New College Rating System

Beginning next year, colleges and universities will be judged on three broad criteria when it comes to meting out federal financial aid: access, affordability and student outcomes, according to a new "framework" released by the Education Department.

The ratings plan was first announced by President Obama in August 2013, but the framework announced today is only an interim step. Public input is being sought by Feb. 17 on the proposed system.

Schools could be rated on a sliding scale, from "high performers" to "in the middle" to "low performers," based on such indicators as whether they meet a certain average net price, graduation and student loan repayment rates, and whether graduates get a job in the field they studied.

Anya Kamenetz of the nprEd blog has more details here.

Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said Thursday that the process of designing the new rating system "is an important step in improving transparency, accountability and equity in higher education.

"The public should know how students fare at institutions receiving federal student aid, and this performance should be considered when we assess our investments and set priorities," he said.

But The Associated Press notes the release of only a framework was "an acknowledgement of just how complicated it is for the federal government to assess more than 7,000 colleges and universities." (NPR's Claudio Sanchez takes a closer look at one college, Randolph, where students pay hefty tuition fees, here.)

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The Washington Post says, "Mitchell acknowledged Thursday that the department is deliberating key issues: Which metrics will be used? How will colleges be grouped for comparison? How will they be given credit for improvement? What does 'in the middle' mean, the middle 50 percent or the middle 90 percent? Will each college receive a single composite rating, multiple ratings — or both?"

According to the AP, when the president announced the ratings system last year, "it received immediate pushback from much of the higher education community and Republicans. Critics said a ratings system could provide a disincentive for colleges to accept students considered high-risk.

"Congress does not need to approve the ratings system, but it would need to pass legislation if it is to be used to parcel out federal financial aid. [Mitchell] ... said Obama is unlikely to ask for that during his remaining two years in office."