Department of Education Seeks Input for Post Secondary Institution Rating System

These remarks were given by Audrey Dow, Vice President of External Affairs and Operations at a U.S. Department of Education hearing.

At the end of last year, President Obama and the Department of Education unveiled the first draft of the new Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) and has asked for public comment. The draft proposes a college ratings system of 10 metrics for rating universities and colleges based on college access, affordability, and performance.

I understand and appreciate the enormity of undertaking a ratings system for the thousands of colleges and universities that exist in the United States. Barriers to college access and success stifle the country’s economic growth while widening the gap between the rich and poor and among students of different ethnic/racial backgrounds.

I applaud the Department of Education and the Administration for its national efforts aimed at increasing the number of Americans who go to college and earn a certificate or degree that prepares them to succeed in the workforce and also for recognizing that colleges and universities play a critical role in helping us reach that goal and share a responsibility for improving how they serve students.

The administration has defined the goals of this ratings system as an opportunity improve the way colleges perform on common benchmarks; provide better information to students and families; generate reliable, useful data for policymakers and researchers; and help inform policy, accreditation, and funding decisions.

California’s position as the most populous state, with the largest Gross Domestic Product in the country , a significant young adult population that is racially and ethnically diverse, and the 753 colleges and universities that receive more than 9.2 billion dollars in federal funding mean that the impact of a rating system cannot be minimized. Our goal at the Campaign is to remind our policymakers that we have an economic and moral imperative to ensure all of our residents have an equal chance at earning a college degree and that we significantly increase the number of Californians who do.

I believe an effective college-rating system should be rooted in three guiding principles: (1) institutions, not just students, should be held accountable for student success; (2) low-income and underrepresented minority students must be at the forefront of the college access and success conversation; and (3) a new rating system is only helpful if it’s utilized and understood by the consumer for whom it is intended and by advocates and policy makers who can act upon the data effectively.

Based on these guiding principles, the Campaign for College Opportunity offered the following five recommendations to the Department as it requested feedback and develops its Postsecondary Institution Ratings System.

1. Include race/ethnicity as part of metrics.
2. Include level and quality of student support at institutions.
3. Include data around student satisfaction.
4. Develop an outreach plan so that students and their families understand and use the ratings system.
5. Develop an outreach plan so that colleges and universities use the ratings plan effectively and as part of informed, strategic decision-making.

1. Include race/ethnicity as part of metrics.
The Campaign supports the inclusion of income, first-generation, and Pell grant status as part of the metrics in the rating system. However, a separate key equity measure is glaringly absent—that of race/ethnicity. Income and first-generation status certainly matter when discussing college enrollment and completion but they are not always proxies for race/ethnicity. Including race/ethnicity in PIRS matters because a growing diverse population of Americans need to equally benefit from college access and opportunity and it would help ensure that more colleges and universities are paying attention to the racial/ethnic gaps that may exist on their campus. At the same time, we do not think that expected outcomes for colleges should be adjusted by the population of students they serve including their race/ethnicity—doing so would suggest that separate standards or expectations exist for students depending on their skin color or background—a concept contrary to our American ideals.

2. Include level and quality of student support at our colleges and universities.
Nationally, only an average of 40 percent of students graduate from four-year universities within four years and 60 percent within six years. A large number of students have prepared and worked hard to access higher education but a large proportion are not graduating on time, if at all. Research has shown that colleges play a large role in ensuring students’ progress through courses and are able to graduate on time. One of the best ways colleges can ensure this progression and timely degree completion is by offering a wide array of services to support students every step of the way. These supports include, but are not limited to: sufficient number of trained and passionate counselors to guide, advise, and track student progress along with clearly informing students that enrollment in less than 15 credits per term will result in delayed time to degree; the utilization of technology to track degree progress and schedule coursework by semester to fulfill academic requirements; tutoring and academic support centers to students who need extra help; mandatory orientation to new students so they are aware of the various ways colleges are committed to their success; and career centers to help students explore career options and prepare to enter the workforce to name a few. Some colleges excel at offering these supports while many fall short. It would be helpful to know which schools offer strong student services.

3. Include data around student satisfaction.
One of the concerns about PIRS is that a ratings system will not tap into the numerous intangible benefits a college education provides. We all know that a college education is more than just a pathway to a job and earned income. A college education inspires, opens minds, and ignites a passion for lifelong learning, all important yet intangible benefits. One way to make the intangible tangible is by measuring student satisfaction—are you satisfied with your college experience? This measure could speak volumes to potential students in ways that enrollment, completion, and jobs data might not.

4. Develop an outreach plan so that students and their families understand and use the ratings system.
A college ratings system will only help students if they are aware of such a tool and are able to use and understand it. We encourage the Department to prepare a comprehensive plan that addresses how the Department will publicize and market the ratings system and teach users how to utilize the tool to make an informed decision. Such a plan should acknowledge that the digital divide is reality for many low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students—the very population that requires the most assistance and support in accessing higher education—and have a plan to access these marginalized groups. The Department should also recognize that English is not spoken at home for about 20 percent of the national population—in California that figure is 44 percent. It is critical to ensure that the ratings tool and any and all associated trainings, documents, webinars, are available in a variety of languages to ensure equal access and understanding.

5. Develop an outreach plan so that colleges and universities use the ratings plan effectively and as part of informed, strategic decision-making.
One of the goals of this new ratings system is so that institutions can benchmark their performance and compare it to similar institutions. The Department should provide a plan so that colleges understand the various ways in which they can use the information from the ratings system to set goals for improvement where necessary and to measure progress over time. A key component of this would be an opportunity or summit hosted by the Department of Education where colleges can discuss best practices and engage in conversations around making improvements, not only to the ratings system but also to their campus. Any efforts to support state policy makers to set forth clear goals and to fund and align accountability around them is critical. As is any incentive and reward that the federal government can utilize to support colleges that are making progress, and closing critical gaps to improve outcomes for students.

To read more about PIRS click here. To see our official letter to the U.S. Department of Education click here.