By Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.
President of Misericordia University
In its most basic sense, the U.S. Department of Education, under direction from the Obama administration, has been working on a program to increase access, affordability and outcomes in higher education. We can agree that these are three noble principles that should be near and dear to the hearts of all colleges and universities.
After all, the pillar of higher education is the student and our foundation is that student's success measured by both personal and professional achievement throughout his or her lifetime.
The U.S. Department of Education has been working to establish the Postsecondary Institution Rating System (PIRS) since President Obama announced it in August 2013. The proposed system is planned to provide consumers of higher education with objective data and information that helps students make educated decisions between different institutions. It also aims to improve the shared principles of access, affordability and outcomes. While the federal government's messaging is sound, the most recent update does little to allay the concerns that have been expressed by educators, students and families alike.
To begin with, access speaks to providing a gateway to higher education for students who are ready and capable for success. Many higher education institutions, including Misericordia University, are very conscious of the need for access. We were founded as a college for the daughters of coal miners who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to continue their education beyond high school.
Misericordia continues to value our role in providing access to women and men who are ready and eager to learn. Although we are a smaller institution, we have nearly 800 students on campus who receive assistance from the federal Pell Grant – a proven indicator that low-income students are very welcome on our campus. Institutional grants and donor-funded scholarships also are used to keep our academic program affordable and rigorous. Misericordia's outcomes – with nearly 70 percent of our students graduating within six years – speak to personal and institutional success. We believe and deliver on access, affordability and outcomes.
Nonetheless, some of the possible metrics under consideration by the federal government will obscure our work and the work of other reputable colleges and universities, rather than sharpen our collective focus. Some of the metrics, such as the family income quintile or average net price, consider only students who are first-time, full-time and receive grants from the university or a governmental source. This first-time, full-time student label eliminates any student who transfers between colleges or begins at a community college, which is a primary gateway for access and affordability.
Furthermore, public colleges would not count students who pay out-of-state tuition. About one-third of Misericordia students arrive from outside the borders of the Keystone State. Under the proposed federal guidelines, the same student counts at a private university but not at its public counterpart.
The proposed metrics also establish three years as the time to complete a degree at a community college and six years for the baccalaureate degree. Many universities, including Misericordia, have consistently strived to admit students who have challenges that may make them take more time to graduate. If a student "stops out" for a semester or a year before returning to school, they are likely to count against the institutional benchmark. That's not a big concern at wealthier institutions that have well-established endowments. It is, however, very concerning for low-income students and first-generation families. The desire for access is then twisted into opposition with higher education's need to admit students who went to high-performing high schools and who have greater financial resources.
If we value access, does it make sense then to add a metric that punishes broader access?
The metrics may also consider salaries of graduates as a way to gauge success. Our institutional mission includes graduating those who will serve others, such as teachers and social workers. While we also graduate students who enter high-paying occupations, it seems odd that we would devalue the work of those who seek to build our local communities. The U.S. Department of Education is, seemingly, telling us that a career in teaching or nonprofit service is not the best career choice for our talented students. I disagree.
A metric also is being considered for graduate school attendance. Again, this ambition is laudable, yet it is difficult to reconcile with the goal of providing a gateway to a degree for first-generation students and students in need.
After about 16 months of discussion, we have yet to make sufficient progress to move PIRS forward. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education is in a rush to provide "information" to shape our choices. We need to get back to the goal of serving students and the taxpayers who provide the federal funds to higher education. What we have now appears to be simplistic measures for complex challenges that work against the stated goals of access, affordability and outcomes.