President C. L. Max Nikias and Provost Michael Quick headed a delegation of trustees, senior administrators and deans in Washington, D.C. to meet with a bipartisan committee of lawmakers. The meeting, held in early April, was intended to address concerns regarding higher education, including a proposal for the White House to rate the nation’s post-secondary institutions.
President Barack Obama and his administration’s goal to combat the rising costs of a college education and to make education more affordable for students and their families includes a plan to introduce a new college rating system through the Department of Education.
In his annual address to faculty back in February, President Nikias discussed what he viewed as shortcomings in the proposed ratings system based on access, affordability and outcomes.
“None of these metrics reflect academic value or academic excellence,” Nikias said. “USC wins on outcomes and access, and we use a tremendous amount of resources to fund merit-based and need-based scholarships, to make USC education affordable … [The ratings system] may incentivize the wrong things.”
In February, USC and other members of the Association of American Universities, a nonprofit collective of public and private research universities, criticized the plan to draft a new rating system. In a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the AAU said that it would not endorse the “inappropriate” federal rating system. Though the AAU praised Obama’s efforts to make college more accessible and affordable, the institution claimed an official rating system — unlike the ones used by media organizations such as U.S. News and World Report — would contradict “the unbiased and authoritative image” of the federal government.
However, aside from a federal rating system, students often look to U.S. News and World Report which provides a widely recognized annual ranking. These rankings are based on 16 measures of quality that are divided into seven key areas, including factors such as undergraduate academic reputation, graduation and retention rates and financial resources. The unofficial rankings published by U.S. News and World Report rate the schools against each other, forming a numbered list of top schools, which is different from the rating system the federal government is proposing.
The proposed ratings system will not rate the schools against one another or provide a numbered list as U.S News and World Report does, but rather will seek to rate each school individually.
This year, USC ranked 25 in U.S. News’s ranking, down two spots from 2014. The latest report has raised doubts among college presidents across the nation, including Nikias, regarding the accuracy of U.S. News’s list in addition to other rating and ranking systems. Nikias spoke to the Washington Post in February about his belief that U.S. News’s calculations fail to factor in important aspects of colleges when compiling their ratings list, such as USC’s dedication to the arts.
“Sure, we pay attention to the rankings, because everyone looks at them,” Nikias told the Washington Post.
A study released by the American Educational Research Association shows that rankings published by U.S. News can influence where students apply to college as well. Holding a spot on the list’s top 25 can increase the amount of applications a school receives from 6 to 10 percent.
The White House’s current system of rating post-secondary institutions is operated through the Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center. The “College Scorecard” on the department’s website does not rank colleges against each other. The database provides information to students about colleges’ affordability and value, in alphabetical — rather than hierarchal — lists, by either searching for a specific institution or choosing from a variety of elements such as majors and location to narrow results.
According to the Department of Education, the push for the rating system by the Obama administration comes from the desire to strengthen the value of American college education and the federal government’s investment in student financial aid. The administration would additionally like to direct federal student aid money toward institutions with higher ratings.
“U.S. News welcomes Obama’s proposal for a new rating system and hopes the Department of Education makes more robust data on graduate career prospects and more accurate data on student debt loads available,” U.S. News chief data strategist Robert Morse wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan.
Comments from the public and higher institutions such as the AAU were requested until February 17, when the Department of Education began to build a framework to revise the metrics and systems of their college databases, which will be available to the public in the 2015-2016 school year.
Claire Porter, a sophomore majoring in communication, said that she relied on her own research on USC’s social life, location and academic programs to make a final decision about where to attend college instead of using a ranking.
“I didn’t really need a ranking system to decide [on a university],” Porter said.