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Last week, we released the report Tough Love: Bottom-Line Quality Standards for Colleges. It stepped boldly into a space many have been afraid to enter, by calling out specific performance benchmarks, recommending federal aid sanctions if necessary, and shining a light on high performers (and laggards) in the sector.

Predictably, it’s raising eyebrows and drawing many of the trite criticisms that have functioned as an excuse to keep the higher education system from serving the very students who need it most. Our favorite excuses are:

This proposal hurts students.

Elite colleges would have to lower their admissions standards to let in more low-income students.

These numbers are arbitrary.

None of these excuses have merit, and we tip our hat to the New York Times editorial board for acknowledging that fact. Whereas college presidents are “up in arms” about President Barack Obama’s college rating system conceptually and the technical difficulties involved in creating it practically, the Times found those arguments “unconvincing” — noting that current data and current metrics (already collected by the U.S. Department of Education and metrics Ed Trust proposed in its report: graduation rates, loan defaults, and percent of low-income students enrolled) are useful indicators of whether colleges are serving their students and the country well.

The fact is the federal government has yet to request much in the way of outcomes, in return for its massive investment of $180 billion in student aid. Year after year, when the federal checks are written, institutional performance on access, completion, and post-enrollment success essentially doesn’t matter.

Our proposal calls for the federal government to stop sitting passively on the sidelines. Instead, it should exercise some “tough love” on four-year colleges in the bottom 5 percent of graduation rates, loan defaults, and Pell freshman enrollment. Low-performing colleges that don’t improve would be subject to losing competitive federal grant eligibility and certain tax benefits (paging Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa). “College dropout factories” and “diploma mills” would be subject to losing all access to federal financial aid dollars.

We believe this is a fair and reasonable approach to spur institutions to improve, one that is complementary to what the president is trying to do. To be clear, doing the hard work of developing a comprehensive college rating system that focuses on public purpose outcomes is important, because if we are to reach our goals as a nation, we need virtually all colleges and universities to improve. But there’s no reason to wait in the meantime. The federal government can kick-start the process by identifying the “worst of the worst” colleges and following up with tough love. After all, these are the colleges that contribute disproportionately to our problems with college access and success.

A number of states and colleges have shifted their attention to performance. It’s time for the federal government to do the same. Our country can’t afford to wait.

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