Center wants ratings on colleges' transparency

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Those choosing a college are used to seeing campuses compared using all sorts of criteria, from affordability and prestige to how hard-partying the place is.

But an education and advocacy group wants to see those schools ranked by another measure: How readily they share information with the public.

The Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center is asking the Obama administration to add transparency as a measure to its proposed index rating colleges.

The center, which supports student journalists on disclosure matters, raised the idea in a statement to the U.S. Department of Education, which sought public comment on the proposed rating system that could be rolled out as soon as early 2015.

"Gathering and publishing data about institutional performance is a significant step toward demystifying the college choice process," the center wrote. "But in addition to selecting metrics about cost and completion rates, the Department should incorporate into its ratings system a measurement of the ease or difficulty of obtaining information.

"If the primary objective of this [index] is to empower consumers with reliable information, then the Department's ratings must include each institution's own record of providing -- or concealing -- the information that families most need."

Frank LoMonte, the center's executive director, said Monday such a system could make responsiveness "a competitive advantage" for schools proficient at it. For those who are not, it could be an indicator they should look elsewhere.

But the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C., group already skeptical of the administration's overall plan, said adding transparency introduces a new layer of complication and is unlikely to occur.

Cost measures are one thing, but openness is something else, and an administration intent on debuting its new system early next year is not likely to expand data collection, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the council, a higher education association with 1,800 member institutions.

"Transparency is much harder to measure, and the federal government collects almost no data on it," Mr. Hartle said. He called the idea "sort of a wish list of things that journalists would like to have from colleges and universities."

Submitted on Friday, the center's proposal is in three broad areas, some more applicable to public than private campuses.

The center asks that colleges "be required to report on their adherence to state public-disclosure laws." It said the Education Department could utilize a variation of such models as a Justice Department requirement that federal agencies submit quarterly reports on: the number of Freedom of Information requests received, the number of requests processed, the size of any backlog and efforts to close the 10 oldest cases from the prior year.

The center also wants colleges to be evaluated on compliance with rules requiring federally funded institutions to gather and make available to students such information as: campus crime, discipline and fire safety, how athletic funds are spent, financial aid policies, preparation of accreditation reports, financial aid polices, academic standards and college costs.

The center also proposed that colleges be evaluated by the level of public involvement in presidential searches.

"Nothing could be more inconsistent with public accountability in higher education than the growing zeal of institutions to select their presidents behind a wall of secrecy," the center wrote.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG.

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