New brief discusses why comparing institutions based on standard factors may not work for today’s expectations

compare-institution-PIRSAccording to a new brief, major considerations must be taken into account for the Obama Administration’s proposed college rating system, the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System, or PIRS, including students’ socio-economic backgrounds, and the mission of the institution.

A number of key elements in PIRS have yet to be defined, as policymakers continue to seek input from the higher education community.

According to the Department of Education (ED), President Obama will seek legislative changes to the Higher Education Act to ultimately link student financial aid to institutional outcomes such as the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, average cost of attendance, student loan debt, graduation rates, and/or transfer rates.

A 2013 White House fact sheet noted that the ratings would compare colleges “with similar missions,” but did not provide details on how colleges would be grouped.

ED has been tasked with developing and publishing the new college ratings system by the 2015-16 award year.

The brief, “Peers in PIRS: Challenges & Consideration for Rating Groups of Postsecondary Institutions,” commissioned by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), uses institutional case studies to illustrate some of the differences and similarities among colleges and universities.

It makes the case that any postsecondary outcomes need to be “corrected” for various inputs, such as the characteristics and backgrounds of entering students, and provides examples that speak to the feasibility of “mission” as a peer-group identifier.

“Having an accurate picture of student outcomes at similar institutions is a worthy goal,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger in a statement. “But this must be done thoughtfully lest we do more harm than good. We know that comparing institutions—even those with seemingly similar missions—is not as simple as it appears. Our research shows that student demographics and needs vary widely, even at schools with very similar missions.”

The brief outlines three key considerations for the Administration when developing PIRS:

(Next page: 3 key considerations for comparing institutions)


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