Fifty presidents of Virginia colleges and universities have signed a letter objecting to what they see as unintended consequences of a White House proposal that could link federal financial aid to student success.

While the presidents said they support the plan’s goal to bring more transparency to student outcomes, apportioning aid by a ratings system would be “misguided” and “would disadvantage many needy students.”

The White House proposal would put schools “under pressure to increase graduation rates by enrolling higher income students and to graduate students who enter high paying professions,” the letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the state’s congressional delegation states.

The letter, delivered this week, was signed by presidents from the Council of Presidents, representing public institutions, and the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, made up of private, nonprofit schools.

The Obama proposal, still under development, would compare schools on factors including graduation rates, student debt and the wages graduates earn in the workforce. The ratings system then might be used to determine how much federal aid for student loans and grants each school would receive.

Institutions that traditionally serve low-income or nontraditional students would be disadvantaged by that aspect of the plan, the letter said, because schools would have an incentive to enroll higher-income students and fewer part-time students who take longer to graduate and are typically lower income.

A ratings system that “places substantial weight on the income of graduates is fundamentally flawed and counter to basic principles” of higher education, the letter says.

“In our judgment, it would be a serious error for students to receive a message that their success in life is evaluated solely, or even primarily, by their earnings, and especially so in the period shortly after earning their degrees.”

Also, the current method for tracking graduation rates is flawed, the letter says, because it doesn’t account for students who transfer to other institutions.

Among those signing the letter was Virginia Tech’s new president, Timothy D. Sands, who said the intent was not to be negative about the plan’s goals but to be “careful that the unintended consequences aren’t larger than the intended consequences.”

“We really do need to be careful about default rates, graduation rates. Those are all important things,” Sands said. “But we’re cautioning the Obama administration to not be too simplistic in the way they use metrics to rate the institutions.”

He said there are more sophisticated measures of graduation rates that include transfer students, for example, than the metric used by the Department of Education.

Others signing the letter included the presidents of all the public four-year institutions, the chancellor of the community college system, and the presidents of the University of Richmond, Virginia Union University and Randolph-Macon College.

Robert Lambeth, who also signed the letter as president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said the issues raised are significant because they reflect “a universal concern among many different public and private colleges in Virginia.”

The focus on income especially is troubling, he said, because it’s “not reflective of what the American higher ed system has been. There are many students who do not make a lot of money, who choose public service.”

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