President Nikias discusses college rating system in DC

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.

2 replies
  1. david
    david says:

    No wonder Max Nikias does not like ratings/rankings systems, except when they benefit his “New Academic Model”, and that’s not very often.

    Since he took office, USC has fallen steadily in the ratings/rankings, almost across the board:

    a. Marshall Business School is in danger of falling out of the TOP 30.
    b. Gould is out of the top 20.
    c. Rossier is out of the top 10
    d. Social work is out of the top 10.
    e. Roski Arts and Design is in freefall, with the entire 2016 Class having withdrawn! (Didn’t see this posted on the website.)
    f. USC College is falling likewise, (tied @ 25/26). AT A TIME WHEN WE ARE SUPPOSED TO SURPASS OUR RIVALS! Two public schools have surpassed us: UCLA/Virginia.

    g. Conversely, the cost of USC is # 9–congratulations, Max. TOP TEN!

    Wow, where is the “Value” there?

    In contrast, our rival across town costs half as much to attend and is ranked higher in nearly every category compared to us. More value?

    You say it’s difficult to make forward motion in the academic rankings? It is, but both Duke and Univ. of Chicago have moved steadily and forcefully into the top ten and top five–where the going is the toughest. Needless to say, President Steven Sample was able to move us substantially with much fewer resources than are available to President Nikias.

    Why are we falling so drastically? Following is the Max Nikias Legacy that has directly negatively impacted the quality of a USC education:

    …He has stuffed 10,000 additional students into the university population immediately upon his arrival, without one word as to this immense change in business/academic policy; all the while adding no new beds or recreation facilities. After the fact, he is building University Village. But, the numbers do not work–adding 10,000 students and only 2,700 beds. We are now larger than most public universities and we receive no public funds other than for research.

    …With all the successful fundraising, the Endowment has actually fallen on a Per Student Basis, (due to increased student population of 10,000). On a Per Student Basis, our endowment does not rank in the top 100 of US Higher Education.

    …His programs of “Access” (10,000 new students) have only served to admit a lower percentage of qualified students to the point of having to establish an “Honors College” in order to attract the truly standout applicants. Of course, they all pay the same, regardless of their qualifications.

    …Our main High School feeders are now low scoring local schools (Foshay, etc.) along with Cal State Dominguez Hills serving as our main transfer school. We take tons of transfers–another new Nikias policy concerning increased “Access” and lowered standards.

    …We have to accept 9,000 students to fill 3,000 spots–, a take-up rate of 33.3%. Elite schools have this number flipped where 70% accept the invitation to matriculate. This may be the most damning statistic of all showing how little progress Nikias has made towards making USC into an Elite School. High School College Counselors still rate USC @ 4.3 out of 5 possible points for “Quality of Education”. Again, Elite schools rate 4.9-5.0. I wonder where the elite students attend? Not hard to see why.

    …He has expanded on-line education to the point where you can now get a USC undergraduate degree without ever stepping foot into the USA. Of course, the real point of this is to raise money while lowering the cost of a USC education (across the board) for the ratings gurus. On-line education is cheaper than off-line: It skews the overall “Cost of a USC Education” numbers in our favor, while raising a ton of money. Who does this really serve besides a few graduate students and professionals who don’t live in L.A.? (More access to USC).

    …While our NCAA athletes have some of the best facilities in the world, the remaining 98% of the Student Population (41,000) have facilities that are more fit for a high school about a quarter of our size. Try getting onto an athletic field without a reservation–locals have the same priority as the students. Don’t believe me, go down to campus one weekend and see who is using the athletic fields, while paying students sit around and wait their turn.


    … President Nikias preaches the “Value” of a USC diploma while undercutting it’s value in nearly every way. We now issue over 15,000 sheepskins/year. As am employer/Alumnus, I see more and more USC graduates with lower and lower qualifications. USC cannot be everything to everyone, as much as Nikias is trying to make it that. I honestly think he is much better suited to leading a public university and not our USC. The facts bear me out.

    • b juardo
      b juardo says:

      Keep it pithy and people will pay attention.

      I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I do notice SC slipping in terms of “prestige.” Nikias is watering down/selling out SC’s identity; he’s discounting its substance in order to appeal to everyone. Sample, on the other hand, did an awesome job; I went during his era. He rebuilt SC from being an academically complacent school that only focused on football and “connections” to at least meeting our rival across town in academic rankings, admit-rate, et al.

      Sample followed the proverbial “leave while you’re still on top.” Nikias is floundering with what Sample passed to him….Caltech recently got a new president, and he was the former president of U Chicago. I think Caltech’s admin was wise to choose someone with a lot of experience from a commensurate school…SC should’ve done likewise; promoting from within isn’t always the wisest thing. Oh well, I guess SC will revert to the 90s……when UCLA surpassed us academically and beat us in football.

      Fight on *with trepidation*

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