Peers In PIRS: Challenges & Considerations For Rating Groups Of Postsecondary Institutions


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As the Obama Administration works to develop a new college rating system, known as the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), a number of the proposal’s elements have yet to be defined. According to the Department of Education (ED), the proposed system—in which institutional outcomes would ultimately be linked to student financial aid—would be based on such measures as percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, average cost of attendance, student loan debt, graduation, and transfer rates. For example, students at colleges with higher ratings could be eligible for larger Pell Grants or more favorable rates on student loans. 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.

PIRS Cover LgThis brief, commissioned by NASFAA and authored by independent researcher Alisa Cunningham, provides an overview of selected research and focuses on the challenges associated with grouping and comparing peer institutions under PIRS. It also uses institutional examples to illustrate some of the differences and similarities among colleges and universities in three states. This brief suggests that if the federal government is going to create a system of rating colleges, it is important to have valid institutional comparison groups within which comparable outcomes can be assessed.

The Department of Education has been tasked with developing and publishing the new college ratings system by the 2015-16 award year, with the goal of allocating financial aid based on the ratings by 2018. NASFAA will remain engaged in this process and continue to update members as needed.