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Study: Obama's College Rating Plan May Not Reach Low-Income Students

The authors warn that the proposed federal ratings may not be able to both inform students and parents and hold universities accountable.

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The president's college rating plan is trying to achieve too many goals, according to a new study. 

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A new study from a Washington, D.C.-based higher education association concludes that it's misplaced for the federal college ratings plan, announced last year by President Barack Obama, to try to enhance consumer access and institutional accountability through one tool.   

Calling the strategy "well-intentioned but poorly devised," the study's authors, Lorelle L. Espinosa, Jennifer R. Crandall, and Malika Tukibayeva, all from the American Council on Education, presented their findings in an issue brief from the council's Center for Policy, Research and Strategy called "Rankings, Institutional Behavior, and College and University Choice: Framing the National Dialogue on Obama’s Ratings Plan."

The study is the latest in a rapidly expanding body of academic literature that takes a scholarly, analytical approach to the study of academic rankings and their impact on higher education and the broader society. 

The purpose of the paper, according to a release from the organization, was to provide analysis that could be part of the ongoing discussions and debate about the administration’s proposed college ratings.

Espinosa, the report's lead author and assistant vice president for policy research and strategy at the association, said, "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, especially for low-income students."

Some other key points in the paper include the following:  

• That college rankings like the U.S. News Best Colleges have become influential in university decision-making. It also concludes, based on the latest research from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that rankings are not a driving force in student decisions on which institutions to attend, as we have also pointed out, and are even less influential for students from lower income backgrounds. 

• The study states that despite assurances from the administration, many in the higher education community believe that the ratings "will nonetheless become a de facto ranking, with negative consequences for the very low-income and other underrepresented students whom the administration is looking to serve." 

• The study's authors also conclude, "There is a difference between U.S. News & World Report making a judgment on what students and families should be concerned with and what the federal government deems important, particularly when federal funds are tied to such judgment, as has been proposed by the administration." 

• The study also says that the U.S. Department of Education, as it seeks to create a rating system that informs both student choices and policymaking, "is at once trying to serve two competing masters. Different stakeholders have different uses of data and are driven by different needs and incentives. Measures of fiscal accountability should be different from measures for student choice."