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Obama's student aid plan of rating colleges receives middling grades

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 11:52 p.m.

President Obama's proposal to establish a college rating system and tie student aid to what he calls “college value” got a mixed reception on Thursday from colleges, students and higher education experts, some of whom are uneasy about this latest college affordability plan.

The plan, released during the first of a two-day bus tour, calls for establishing a scorecard to rank colleges using graduation rates, graduate earnings, tuition, scholarships, loan debt and access for low-income students.

It suggests legislation that would base aid on those metrics, awarding lower loan rates and higher Pell grants to students attending schools that rank well.

That part of the proposal sounds fine to Mary Griseto, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I think that would be very beneficial to students and to colleges, just to ensure you're doing your job,” said Griseto, 20, of Scranton.

Danny Loeb, 22, a first-year medical student at Pitt, has reservations about the proposal. For many students, he said, affordability means staying relatively close to home. The Ohio State University graduate said it sounds as though the plan could penalize those students if their schools are not as highly rated as others.

Obama would provide incentives to states for support to public colleges and universities, to encourage innovative educational approaches such as speeding the time to degree completion. The government would encourage colleges to use technology, such as Carnegie Mellon University's online Open Learning Initiative, and award college credits for competence rather than time spent in the classroom.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, said he shares Obama's concern about keeping college affordable but believes the president has neglected a more pressing need.

“I'd like to see the president focus on the underwhelming job growth in today's stagnant economy,” Toomey said. “The lack of adequate job opportunities for recent graduates is still a major problem and will make it tough for them to pay for their education, no matter how much we subsidize student loans or try to control tuition costs.”

Though some higher ed advocates are concerned about standards that would factor into college evaluations, others say they are overdue.

“It is a wake-up call to higher education that federal money is not something that should flow because they are colleges and universities, but only when they demonstrate that they are effective,” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president for policy at the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Karen Ball, vice chancellor for external relations at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said the state's 14 public universities are positioned to respond to the call for increased accountability.

Obama's goals “closely track those already in place with the state system, which is one of the few public universities systems in the nation to voluntarily implement a performance-funding program,” Ball said.

At Penn State University, officials said they are eager to review details of the proposal.

“We certainly share President Obama's vision for providing access to higher education and for making education more affordable,” said Lisa Powers, a university spokeswoman.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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