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Groups Push to Alert Students of Troubled Colleges in New Consumer Tool

Nearly 50 education and consumer groups are urging the Obama administration to flag colleges that are facing investigation or lawsuits from the government in the new federal college comparison website.

The Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS, helped lead the coalition, which sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan July 22 proposing that the upcoming consumer tool (replacing the original college rating concept) includes information about schools that are subject to state or federal litigation.

Citing the Corinthian College bankruptcy and its ensuing debacle for students, the letter expressed the need for greater transparency so families can make wise investments in higher education.

"Students deserve to know when a college's practices are under heightened scrutiny from federal and state regulators, just as investors in publicly traded for-profit colleges are required to be notified of such events," the letter stated.

Last month, the Obama administration indicated it would be dropping its controversial plan to rate colleges based on certain metrics. Instead, it will create an interactive online website for consumers that will have more information than current the College Scorecard.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling signed onto this week's coalition letter because it sees a need to tighten up program integrity in the federal college aid program and alert students to troubled institutions, said David Hawkins, the director of policy for the Arlington, Va.-based association.

"If the federal government had pursued legal action against a college, that's important information for families to know," said Hawkins in a phone interview.

NACAC would also like for the new resource to be more user-friendly and provide details about student transfers and outcomes beyond simple graduation rates, and incorporate material from other government agencies, such as the financial aid award letter comparison tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Hawkins said he was pleased when the administration decided to dial back its rating plan, as NACAC members were concerned, along with others in the higher education community, that existing data was not good enough to develop an accurate system. "This administration has done a good job of paying attention to reasoned and logical arguments," he said. "From a political standpoint, they realized there just wasn't much support."

Jessica Thompson, a senior policy analyst at TICAS in Washington, said the administration has been open to feedback as it creates the new tool and her organization has submitted other suggestions prior to this week's letter.

For instance, the institute would like to see each college list its cumulative debt for students at graduation. Now, debt includes the total for all students who attended, including those who dropped out (which is much lower), skewing the picture for prospective students, said Thompson in a phone interview.

Also, TICAS would like the government to go beyond providing data on the percent of Pell Grant students enrolled by the institution to include the percent of federal aid grant recipients who actually graduate.  

While the institute is happy the administration is not creating a single rating or number, Thompson thinks it would be helpful for data about colleges to be provided in context to some national average.

Whatever the final product, Thompson said more needs to be done to educate consumers and get data in the hands of counselors and families.

"There is a desire and thirst for better information on cost and outcomes, but there is a long ways to go in making them accessible and understandable for the average family," said Thompson.

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