Parsing Obama’s college ranking system
The U.S. Department of Education has been working to establish the Postsecondary Institution Rating System (PIRS) since President Obama announced it in August 2013. The proposed system is planned to provide consumers of higher education with objective data and information that helps students make educated decisions between different institutions.
It also aims to improve the shared principles of access, affordability and outcomes. While the federal government’s messaging is sound, the most recent update does little to allay the concerns that have been expressed by educators, students and families alike.
Misericordia University, founded as a college for the daughters of coal miners who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to continue their education beyond high school, continues to value our role in providing access to women and men who are ready and eager to learn.
Although we are a smaller institution, we have nearly 800 students who receive assistance from the federal Pell Grant—a proven indicator that low-income students are very welcome on our Pennsylvania campus. Institutional grants and donor-funded scholarships are also used to keep our academic program affordable and rigorous.
Our outcomes—with nearly 70 percent of students graduating within six years—speak to personal and institutional success. We believe and deliver on access, affordability and outcomes.
Some of the metrics under consideration will, rather than sharpen our collective focus, obscure our work and the work of other reputable colleges. Family income quintile and average net price consider only students who are first-time, full-time and receive grants from the school or from a governmental source.
This first-time, full-time student label eliminates anyone who transfers or begins at a community college, which is a primary gateway for access and affordability.
Also, public colleges would not count students paying out-of-state tuition. About one-third of our students arrive from outside Pennsylvania. Under the federal guidelines, the same student would count at a private university but not at its public counterpart.
The proposed metrics also establish three years as the time to complete a degree at a community college and six years for the baccalaureate degree. Many universities, including Misericordia, have consistently strived to admit students with challenges that may cause delays in college completion.
A student “stopping out” for a semester or a year before returning to school is likely to count against the institutional benchmark. That’s not a big concern at wealthier institutions that have well-established endowments.
It is, however, very concerning for low-income students and first-generation families. If we value access, does it make sense to add a metric that punishes broader access?
The metrics may also gauge success by salaries of graduates. Our institutional mission includes graduating those who will serve others, such as teachers and social workers.
While we also graduate students who enter high-paying occupations, it seems odd that we would devalue the work of those who seek to build our local communities. The U.S. Department of Education is, seemingly, telling us that a career in teaching or nonprofit service is not the best career choice for our talented students.
A metric is also being considered for graduate school attendance. Again, it is difficult to reconcile this with the goal of providing a gateway to a degree for first-generation students and students in need.
Back to basics
After about 16 months of discussion, we have yet to make sufficient progress to move PIRS forward. Yet the U.S. Department of Education is in a rush to provide “information” to shape our choices.
We need to get back to the goal of serving students and the taxpayers who provide the federal funds to higher education. What we have now appears to be simplistic measures for complex challenges, and a rating system that works against the stated goals of access, affordability and outcomes.
Thomas J. Botzman is president of Misericordia University.