American Council on Education Wary of Obama Administration’s Plan to Rank Schools

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by Jamal E. Mazyck

 Lorelle Espinosa, author of the ACE brief, says the Postsecondary Institutions Rankings System may put lower-income students at a disadvantage when it comes to assessing their options for college.

Lorelle Espinosa, author of the ACE brief, says the Postsecondary Institutions Rankings System may put lower-income students at a disadvantage when it comes to assessing their options for college.

The American Council on Education (ACE) issued a brief Wednesday that addressed the potentially damaging impact ranking systems have on higher education institutions. The ACE Center for Policy, Research & Strategy’s Rankings, Institutional Behavior, and College and University Choice brief uses research-based data to frame the Obama administration’s plan to rank colleges and universities based on value and affordability.

Announced last August by President Obama, the much debated proposed Postsecondary Institutions Rankings System, set to implement in the 2015-16 academic year, aims to hold colleges accountable for performance and control tuition fees. Under this system, the higher the institution rates, the more aid, grants and affordable student loan programs are received than the lower ranking colleges.

With the rising costs of college tuition, potential students and their families are facing tough financial decisions and the impending de facto ranking system is supposed to make those decisions less complicated. According to the College Board, over the last 30 years, average tuition has risen at public and private four-year institutions 231 percent and 153 percent, respectively. Public two-year tuition rose 164 percent over the same period. The ranking system intends to average college tuition with the share of low-income students and how many graduate with less debt. The brief takes a hard look at the impact of such a system and how much of a factor they are when deciding on colleges.

According to data released last month by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) out of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), location was more of a determining factor than a rank value, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

Twenty-five percent of low-income students said staying close to home was “very important” and 27 percent of first-generation students also stated selecting an institution near home was very important in contrast to 18 percent of non-first generation students.

HERI found that less than a 25 percent of all students said rankings were “very important” in their college decisions, with a 9 percent point gap between low- and high-income students and a 14 percent point gap between students attending low and highly selective institutions.

The brief outlines the notion that college rankings tend to place more value on the talents of incoming classes than on student outcomes and can negatively influence the admission process. If higher education institutions use popular rankings to determine their selectivity, then low-income students may be at a disadvantage.

“ACE is among the organizations contributing to the ongoing dialogue on the Obama administration’s plan,” said Lorelle Espinosa, ACE assistant vice president for policy research and strategy and the report’s author. “The purpose of this paper is to show, through data and years of research, how this plan could impact institutional behavior while at the same time doing little to inform students and families about their college options. We believe the unintentional consequences of such a system could outweigh the potential gains for low-income students.”

Espinosa cites in her report that any rating system is “only as good as its data.” The Obama administration through the U.S. Department of Education will likely use information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), self-reported retention and completion data sets from higher education institutions. Among the numerous limitations, IPEDS data only accounts for first-time, full-time undergraduates; it does not include the country’s nearly 7 million part-time students or second-timers who return to college mid-career or after significant time away from their studies. According to the brief, IPEDS data is not representative of complete student body populations, thus four-year, community colleges and minority-serving institutions that serve significant part-time and non-traditional students suffer.

Dr. Jerome Hunt, assistant professor of political science, history, and global studies at the University of the District of Columbia, says he understands just how much of a disservice a government-sanctioned rating system will have on minority-serving institutions.

“With a rating system, we are placing a target on minority students because some colleges and universities will be more focused on obtaining a rating rather than helping these students succeed in higher education,” says Hunt. “Instead of just determining affordability, a more comprehensive plan should be developed with the help of institutions that explore a variety of factors and embraces the diverse learning styles of students today, since not all institutions fit into a singular category.”

Other data constraints such as institutional behavior, specifically the lack of research related to institutional quality and how graduation rates are not its only justification.

“If you can rate something, you can rank it,” Epinosa writes in the brief. “Once ranked, then institutions formulized and published in lists which appeal to consumers for subscribers, rather than what students may value the most.” Diverse was mentioned in the brief as being “less sophisticated [in formula] but credible for institutions serving large numbers of minority students” for its “Top Producers of Minority Degrees” issue.

“Higher education institutions remain committed to making college more accessible and affordable to low-income students,” said Espinosa. “The research indicates that rankings don’t necessarily help in those efforts.”

For more information on the brief and reaction from the higher education community, visit www.acenet.edu.

Jamal E. Mazyck can be reached at jmazyck@diverseeducation.com and on Twitter @jmbeyond7. 

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