An Unequal Restriction

Tying aid to federal rankings hurts low-income students.

With September coming to an end, it's not just the school year that's back in full swing: The perennial college rankings season is firmly under way, too. But amid the back-and-forth about the value or irrelevance, or even insidiousness, of the sea of competing lists, it is worth revisiting an upcoming ranking that may prove most impactful of all—one whose full details are expected from the White House by the end of the year.

In an attempt to lower the cost of college, the Obama administration is at work on a program to rank colleges according to several factors related to the value of the education they offer. These factors include “tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend.”

The rankings would then be tied to federal financial aid, such that students attending colleges with higher ratings would receive larger federal grants and more affordable student loans. By tying aid to the rankings, the plan would very strongly govern the college choices of lower-income students, financially penalizing those who make decisions that do not align with the government’s college rankings. We opined against the folly of this before when it was still just a proposal, and amidst the active debate on the program's merits we continue to hold deep concern about its potential implementation.

Decreasing the cost of college is a noble goal that will benefit lower income families, and a centralized, federal ranking would probably aid students in making good decisions. The White House should make clear, however, the reasoning behind each of its factors, carefully considering possible drawbacks.

Including the earnings of graduates, for example, might make colleges seem objectively better simply for emphasizing more monetarily lucrative majors. Colleges would also be discouraged from spending money on important endeavors that might not improve their rankings, such as community spaces and humanities centers.


Using graduation rates as a factor, while seemingly innocuous on its face, might encourage racial discrimination in the admissions process, as the National Center for Education Statistics reports that white students, on average, are more likely to graduate in four and six years than are black students. It would be troubling to see this proposal encourage colleges to cut back on the number of minority applicants in order to defend themselves against lower retention rates and, under the new ranking system, lower funding.

We also do not see how tying the rankings to aid would decrease the cost of education.

While tuition costs have risen substantially over the past two decades, college revenue has stayed fairly static. This suggests that the rising tuitions are not due merely to universities hiking up costs artificially, so targeting individual colleges probably will not be as effective as uncovering systemic reasons for rising tuitions.

Perhaps most troubling, this already flawed program would limit poor students’ freedom of choice by tying aid to the rankings. While we applaud the White House’s goal of making college more affordable, it should not give itself the right to financially pressure students into making decisions the government feels are appropriate, especially when no such pressure would be exerted on higher-income individuals.

There is no denying that college tuition in this country is a problem, and that making higher education accessible to all Americans is a key step toward greater equality. But due to its many unresolved concerns regarding the factors it uses and its discriminatory impact on low-income students, the White House’s proposal seems an ineffective solution.  


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