UC President Janet Napolitano praises Obama’s college ranking system, makes recommendations

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After President Barack Obama announced his plan for a new college ranking system, UC President Janet Napolitano announced Wednesday a set of recommendations to help direct the program’s implementation.

Obama’s plan, revealed in December, proposes comparisons between schools on factors such as graduation rates, student debt and post-graduate financial security. With the plan still in development, leaders in higher education nationwide have been in the process of submitting their input to help shape the ranking metric.

Outlined in a statement released Wednesday, Napolitano’s suggestions include more comprehensive assessments of completion rates among Pell Grant recipients and transfer students, which are often left eclipsed by the overall graduation rate.

“For many public institutions, such as UC, limiting the college ratings system metrics to first-time full-time undergraduate students would not account for the full population of students who are served,” Napolitano said, in a statement.

To monitor poorly performing institutions, Napolitano suggested incorporating mechanisms into the system that track student debt and low completion rates. She also added that Obama’s plan should impose sanctions on universities with high default rates.

Additionally, Napolitano felt that more accurately measuring alumni job security requires differentiating between graduates who work in public service versus those with “substantial employment” and considering factors both internal and external to the institution — such as emphasis on technical fields or graduate study or proximity to high-paying industries and labor markets — that affect employment rates.

Obama’s ranking system plans to group two-year and four-year institutions in separate assessments, but Napolitano felt that student demographics and university endowments differ widely among public, private, research-based or for-profit institutions and that a more detailed and sensitive metric would “provide a clearer picture of comparative institutional strengths.”

But UC Berkeley freshman Coila Hodges disagreed with Napolitano’s suggestion to separately rank public and private universities, asserting that all institutions should be held to the same standards.

“If we want education to progress, the system has to change,” Hodges said. “Obama’s ranking is more realistic, because (it measures) factors that students consider when choosing colleges.”

Beyond improving the accuracy of current metrics, UC Berkeley sophomore Ollie O’Donnell hopes the system’s revision will alleviate what he believes to be a cultural preoccupation with university prestige over more practical criteria.

“The problem … is that nobody is having frank discussions about the true value of a college,” O’Donnell said, in an email. “Many people see the value of themselves in the prestige of their college. To make criticisms about your college is to say ‘this is the best school I could get into.’ ”

Obama will likely pursue legislation by 2018 that would tie the new ranking to financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Denise Horn, assistant press secretary at the Department of Education, said the exact way in which rankings will determine financial aid has yet to be decided.

Obama’s ranking system is scheduled to be established by the start of the 2015-16 school year.

Contact Ivana Saric at [email protected].