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The worst colleges in America

For years, the buzz in higher education has centered on the U.S. News ranking of the best colleges and universities. Ben Miller at the New America Foundation has looked at the best and the worst, ranking the institutions most likely to blow it.

Miller’s article, appearing in the Washington Monthly, goes through four different models of worst colleges, each producing a different set of stars. In the first, he takes four key variables -- high debt, high defaults, high tuition and failure to graduate -- and assigns each 25 percent.

He then varies the model three times, trying to account for differing theories of which types of failures are most troubling.

In one model, for-profit private schools occupy 12 of the top 20. In another model, it’s historically black colleges that occupy 12 of the top 20. In another, the malefactors are a collection of small, expensive, lower-tier liberal arts schools.

These are mostly schools you will never have heard of. In the first model, the New England Institute of Art tops the list, and art institutes score disturbingly “well” in the second list also.

In the fourth model, which adjusts scoring for the number of low-income students enrolled and the net tuition charged to low-income students, the top three failures are Shimer College is Illinois, Southern Vermont College, and Becker College in Massachusetts.

Whatever model one chooses, more attention needs to be focused on bad schools, Miller argues. Bad colleges benefit from the usual emphasis on the best colleges, he says, because they get swept up in the enthusiasm.

“They fly under the radar with little attention and unearned positive reputations. And only the students who have the misfortune to enroll at one of these places find out the truth. If we want to improve national attainment and deal with college cost, that cannot continue. It’s time to get these colleges some attention by putting them at the top of the list,” Miller writes.

Miller’s analysis steps into a raging debate over how federal dollars are spent and misspent on higher education, along with the escalating debt burdens faced by students, NPR notes.

“President Obama has asked the U.S. Department of Education to come up with a system to evaluate private and public institutions that receive federal funding,” NPR writes. “The stakes are high: $200 billion a year, mostly in student aid that colleges get from the government every year, whether or not they do a good job.”

NPR also notes that most colleges oppose the notion of formal metrics, arguing that they “wouldn’t be fair given the extraordinary diversity of institutions out there, each with its own ‘mission’ in terms of cost and the kinds of students it serves.”

The Obama administration has been fighting for years now to put in place regulations that would strip loan and Pell grant eligibility from really bad actors, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, but those rules have been caught up in lawsuits. In 2012, a court threw out the proposed regulation, and the administration proposed a new one in 2013.

But the new rules remain highly contentious. Some advocates for tighter rules argue that the changes have left the new rules toothless.