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Context and the Federal Ratings System

AUDIO | Context is Critical for the Federal Ratings System
Outcomes tracking is necessary across the higher education industry, but the metrics used must be contextual to show the true successes of institutions that serve a diversity of students.

The following interview is with Gloria Nemerowicz, president and founder of the Yes We Must Coalition, a group focused on increasing degree attainment among low-income students by promoting the work of small, not-for-profit colleges and universities. Nemerowicz recently spoke about the importance of involving small colleges in defining the metrics upon which the proposed federal ranking system would be based. In this interview, she expands on those ideas, discusses the value of outcomes-based funding and warns against adopting a system that would disincentivize working with non-traditional students.

1. What are the most significant concerns you have about the proposed federal college ratings system?

It’s still a mystery what the instrument is actually going to look like. Most significantly, everyone is worried about the harm such metrics might have if it’s not well done, especially the chilling effect it could have both on colleges and universities and on students. For colleges and universities, if there’s a way of serving fewer low-income, first generation, communities of color and generally what are called “non-traditional students” … to chill admitting folks who have some significant needs in terms of their learning, that would be unfortunate.

2. What impact does performance-based funding have on institutions that largely serve non-traditional, first-generation and “high-risk” students?

It could be very positive depending on the definition of performance. If we’re talking about value-added … in the context of the contribution  each institution makes to the further educational development and completion of a student, that’s a good thing. It paints an accurate, complex picture of not only the nature of the student body today, but also the nature of higher education.

3. What are the positives of increasing the focus on outcomes for public postsecondary institutions?

Done correctly, this can give us a greater understanding of the elements necessary to support completion, especially for populations who have not, perhaps, had the kind of preparation they need before they get to college. … The Yes We Must Coalition is really focused on how institutions can work together [to serve] students with similar backgrounds and needs. …

Focusing on outcomes isn’t a brand new idea. Many of us have been doing it for decades. … The learning and economic wellbeing of our students — that’s what’s at the heart of colleges and universities, that’s why we exist, and trying to come up with measures of that is not a new enterprise. There can be positives as we start to disentangle all the complexities of the lives of our students.

4. What metrics must be incorporated into a rating or ranking system  set up to serve students who fall outside of that 18 to 22-year-old bubble?

You need to first follow the student and see how different institutional contexts and different experiences — including online learning, blended learning, learning at [multiple institutions], taking courses in the summer somewhere — really tracks over four, five, even 10 years. … You have to decide what the unit of analysis is: if it’s a particular institution, then we’ve got to really link it to all of the students who passed through that institution. If the unit of analysis is the student, we haven’t quite got legal permission yet to be able to [track them in a] database across institutions. What we really care about is how contributions can be made to the wellbeing of each and every individual who has his or her own life complexity and is not the 18 to 22-year-old, residential, four-year student.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the proposed federal ranking system and its potential impact on small institutions?

The hope is that as the first version is released soon, that there will be a few months of commentary. Yes We Must is organized so that this one sector in higher education — the small private sector that serves 50 percent or more of Pell-eligible students — can have a voice.

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