NASFAA Testifies Before ACSFA On PIRS

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

As work moves forward with President Barack Obama’s proposed college ratings system, the Department of Education (ED) should more clearly articulate what it aims to achieve with such a system, NASFAA Assistant Director of Federal Relations Jesse O’Connell testified Friday before the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Affairs (ACSFA).

Friday’s hearing focused on the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) and featured a total of 20 panelists who shared their thoughts and concerns regarding the federal government’s proposed plan. Specifically, the ACSFA was interested in thoughts on how a ratings system should be designed and the potential unintended consequences for low-income students, Committee Chair Maria Harper-Marinick said. 

Deputy Undersecretary of Education Jamienne S. Studley offered opening remarks where she outlined a three-part agenda focused on rising college costs, making debt manageable, and improving outcomes. Studley expressed that todays student’s want more for less and the opportunity to “know before they go.” With this in mind, she indicated key focus areas for the PIRS draft included identifying areas of improvement among schools and determining the best data for examining areas related to access, affordability and outcomes. Studley also stated that PIRS will not rank schools against each other but will categorize them among peer groups and rate them.

Comments delivered at the hearing will be used in part to help form ACSFA’s report on PIRS to Congress and ED, which is to be delivered at the end of the month.

NASFAA Offers Its Perspective 

During his testimony, O’Connell highlighted NASFAA’s previously stated concerns surrounding PIRS, many of which were documented in our report “Peers in PIRS: Challenges & Considerations For Rating Groups Of Postsecondary Institutions.” 

“The types of students enrolled at postsecondary institutions can vary widely; even within the same region, different institutions in the same sector may serve very different student populations,” O’Connell said, adding that it is the Association’s “belief that any rating system must adjust postsecondary outcomes for inputs such as the academic experience and backgrounds of entering students.”

O’Connell also cited concerns around the postsecondary data ED currently collects and the possible consequences of using it to determine institution rankings, such as the use of retention and graduation-rate information. That data applies only to first-time, full-time students and “represents a significant limitation of our current federal postsecondary data,” he said.

“If used in the rating system, it is likely the data behind these metrics will unduly penalize institutions that have high numbers of nontraditional students,” O’Connell told the Committee. “We urge the Department of Education to consider these serious data limitations, and recognize the potential for this data to be inaccurate, incomplete, and unhelpful to students.”

Finally, O’Connell told the Committee that further consumer testing is needed on what information students and families find to be helpful and relevant in the college-going process. Financial aid administrators, he said, often hear from families that they already receive an “overwhelming blizzard of white noise” in terms of consumer information regarding higher education. O’Connell questioned whether PIRS would further contribute to that noise and if it would lead families and students to further confusion. 

Thoughts from Other Panelists

Throughout the day, several themes emerged from the other panelists’ testimony including:

  • The need for more and better data on higher education;
  • Whether the ratings system should be consumer- or accountability-based;
  • The question of whether more consumer data would be beneficial to students and families; and
  • The potentially negative impact an accountability-based ratings system would have on institutions that serve low-income students.

While most panelists expressed the desire for more and better data - with some, including NASFAA, calling for a Student Unit Record or similar database - many of them cautioned against adding to the already voluminous amount of consumer information already available.

Joan Zanders, director of financial aid at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), said in her testimony that while the system might present valuable information, she is concerned schools will have to spend too much time gathering data that most students ultimately won’t read.

“Students already don’t read information vital to their success,” she said, adding the providing more information “is not going to solve the problem for those who need it the most.”

Several panelists also expressed reservations about creating a system that would be more focused on holding institutions accountable through the ratings than being a consumer tool for students and families. In particular, many said they were concerned with the idea of tying federal financial aid to the rating system, which might “do more harm than good,” said Justin Habler, legislative director of the United States Student Association.

Several panelists representing community colleges said that a ratings system would negatively impact their instructions, which serve very diverse populations of students and operate under different missions than four-year institutions. Similarly, Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said that the ratings system is not likely to help U.S. tribal institutions because it would be unable to accurately capture the diversity of such institutions and their student bodies. Institutions that are considered to be high performing but operate with low resources have in the past performed well in commercial college rankings but are likely to suffer under PIRS, she added.

While no specific date has been set, the Administration has said it would like to release a draft ratings system this fall, with the goal of having a final system in place for the 2015-16 academic year.


Publication Date: 9/15/2014

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