FM concerned about rating plan

JOHNSTOWN – Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger and members of the Board of Trustees expressed displeasure with President Barack Obama’s plan for a college rating system.

Swanger said the system could hurt students.

“He has been coming up with a rating system for colleges and universities, and I think we need to speak out about it,” Swanger told the trustees. “It’s hard to make the argument that you don’t want to be accountable, but it’s easy to make the argument that we are accountable in so many ways already that we don’t need another layer of accountability.”

Targeting the soaring cost of higher education, Obama has talked about plans for a new government rating system for colleges that would judge schools on their affordability and perhaps be used to allocate federal financial aid.

For colleges and universities, millions of federal aid dollars could be on the line if schools are downgraded under the government rating system. However, if colleges line up against the idea of tying ratings to federal aid, the proposal could face nearly impossible odds since almost all members of Congress have colleges or universities in their districts.

“He would tie student financial aid to that rating list,” Swanger said. “The premise of that seems to be that all students get to pick the college at which they are going to attend. My concern from the community college standpoint is if you look at the students that attend community colleges, many come here because it’s the only choice they have. We are local and they have family lives or jobs where they can’t leave, and it’s the only opportunity for many of them.”

The rising cost of college has increasingly become a burden for many students. According to administration figures, the tuition costs at public four-year universities has tripled over the last 30 years and average student loan debt stands at $26,000.

Swanger said state colleges have raised their tuition “a lot” over the last several years due in part to the decrease in state support.

He said having more cuts on the federal level would be difficult to handle.

Obama’s proposal could give colleges an incentive to slow increases. It could also add massive reporting requirements that could burden schools already struggling to make ends meet.

“If you are going to measure community colleges, they need to be measured differently than you measure Harvard,” Swanger said.

The new rating system does not require congressional approval, and the White House is aiming to have it set up before the 2015 school year. But Obama does need support from Congress to use the ratings as a basis for parceling out federal financial aid.

In addition to the tuition rating, schools would be rated on average student loan debt, graduation rates and the average earnings of graduates. Under Obama’s proposal, students attending highly rated schools could receive larger grants and more affordable loans.

“I also fear it will affect the colleges that serve the most needy and it will have a bad effect on the students that are the most needy,” Swanger said. “It’s a bad plan, and I think we need to be vocal about it.”

He urged the trustees to send letters in opposition to the plan and said he will talk to political leaders about the issue.

“I think letters to our congressional representatives are in order, not only from me, but I think from members of the board,” Swanger said. “We need to talk about the troubles this could cause, and honestly, I’m more worried about other institutions than I am worried about us, but I think it could be detrimental to students across the country.”

Trustee John Thomas asked whether it would be better to send a letter to officials as a collective board, but Swanger said with these types of issues, it would be better to send multiple letters – one as a board and others individually.

“They seriously count letters and they don’t think there’s a problem until they have [a certain number] of letters,” Swanger said.

Trustee Lee Hollenbeck suggested contacting county leaders and urging them to get involved because “we are all partners in this.”

“If dollars fall from one place, I got to make them up somewhere else,” Swanger said. “And I only got two places to go, the county or students.”

Thomas pointed out parents, who often take on the burden of their child’s tuition, also could feel the effect of the change.

“It would be felt on all levels,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.