It is a niche series of arguments and posts

This post is an edited email with a very bad pun in response to friend/colleague who asked about Nick Anderson’s WaPo piece. In Virginia, we have the institutional profiles, which I have referenced before ( and are now used as the web pages institutions to which link to comply with new law in Virginia.

What these do not have is a score or rating or ranking. This is primarily because such is neither necessary or generally appropriate for a coordinating body to produce. While we believe in transparency to hold institutions accountability and certain narrow forms of accountability (such as the Institutional Performance Standards, which usually have some funding attached to them and are required by law), it is still our job to work to see that all institutions have the ability to succeed, while recognizing that each has unique place in Virginia’s postsecondary marketplace.

I am on record (in many places) for opposing the proposed Postsecondary Institutional Ratings System (PIRS). However, my opposition is based on very specific reasons:

1) The existing data at USED and elsewhere in the federal government is completely inadequate for the task. Virginia knows more about student success in Title IV financial aid programs than USED – and these are not our programs, nor our responsibility. I don’t think USED and the president should consider a ratings system until the data issues are addressed.

2) Ratings, as proposed,  for community colleges are completely meaningless. Students attending these institutions are rarely overwhelmed with choices about where to attend college. In fact, the community college may be their only choice, or at least their only sensible choice.

3) The ratings proposal is about undergraduate access and performance only. Not only does this mean the ratings would not actually be “Institutional” in nature, it means that, should the ratings be successfully tied to Title IV aid, undergraduate performance could prohibit access to federal loans for graduate students. As Kevin Carey pointed out last April in the Chronicle, which I have been saying for years, professional master’s programs are cash cows that support the institution and might well be considered for-profit. If Title IV access for graduate students is too be affected, let’s make sure that graduation rates and time-to-degree for graduate and professional students are part of the ratings – but these measures do not currently exist.

I think it is perfectly appropriate for USED to rate institutions based on Title IV performance (both student performance and institutional behavior, including compliance with reporting and disclosure laws). However, they have such fundamental data problems at this time, it can’t meaningfully be done. Different offices within USED define institutions differently and thus 1 in 5 institutional records between the office of Federal Student Aid and IPEDS do NOT match.

As for whether or not Virginia can create an alternative, we certainly could. I think it is totally unnecessary. Further, without legislation telling us to do it, I think it is a terribly bad idea. It is far better idea to continue to push the envelope in terms of what is known about Virginia higher education, creating such levels of data-based transparency that no one can hide. Within another year, I think we will be there. We are close now.

Ratings of financial stability/viability are perhaps another matter. What the presidents are most fearful is what happened to Virginia Intermont College. Just being put on a “caution” list, caused (I think) a 60-day delay in federal reimbursements and the institution was already leveraged to the hilt with bills past due. Presidents are quite right to fear any system that adds any additional possibility for the disruption to the money flow. (If you ever read “Dune” by Frank Herbert, you will remember the phrase “The spice must flow!” The only difference here is spice means money.)

In the end, all that really matters is how we serve students. This morning there is a report on new research that raises questions about the ongoing critique of graduation rates at minority-serving institutions. Basically, the authors found that when one controls for student educational background and institutional resources, the graduation rates are comparable to those at predominantly white institutions. While probably still a bit lower, that is explained in my research by the fact students are very much affected by institutional culture. If the norm is not to not graduate, than graduation is act of being different. Most young people tend, despite protestations to the contrary, want to fit in and if not completing is okay, then “no problem.” In fact, when you look at graduation rates of students who have successfully earned 60 credits or more in the first two years, there is very little difference between our HBCUs and our predominantly white institutions. The hard part is getting students to that point.

I really think we can accomplish everything intended for PIRS to accomplish by shining a very bright and public light on institutions and students. Which we do already in Virginia.


Additional readings:

What I said to the GAO

About the Undeclared Major as a Dead Horse

Duncan Doesn’t Understand the Opposition to PIRS

Describe a Rainbow in Seven Words

Five Stages of Education Policy

Why Ratings Seem to be Necessary to Outsiders

A response to Schuman and Warner

The Gainful Employment Rating System

The Damage of Relying Federal Data

Rating the Ratings Game

College Decision Day and PIRS

As a Matter of Fact You Do Need a Badge


Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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