One of the biggest challenges the Department of Education’s proposed Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) will face is how to present a valid set of ratings to multiple audiences. Much of the discussion at the recent technical symposium was about who should be the key audience: colleges (for accountability purposes) or students (for informational purposes). The determination of what the audience should be will likely influence what the ratings should look like. My research primarily focuses on institutional accountability, and I think that the federal government should focus on that as the goal of PIRS. (I said as much in my presentation earlier this month.)
The student information perspective is much trickier in my view. Students tend to flock to rankings and information sources that are largely based on prestige instead of some measure of “value-added” or societal good. As a result, I view the Washington Monthly college rankings (which I’ve worked on for the past two years) as a much more influential tool to incentivize colleges and policymakers than students. I think that is the right path to take to influence colleges’ priorities, as I have to question whether many students will use college rankings that provide very useful information to students but do not line up with the preexisting idea of what is a “good” college.
I was quoted in an article in Politico this morning regarding PIRS and what can be learned from existing rankings systems. In that article, I expressed similar sentiments, although in a less elegant way. (It’s also a good time to clarify that all opinions I express are my own.) I certainly hope that more than six students use the Washington Monthly rankings to inform their college choice sets, but I do not harbor grand expectations that students will suddenly choose to use our rankings over U.S. News. However, the influence of the rankings on colleges has the potential to help a large number of students through changing institutional priorities.