Yes, Some Colleges Are Hurt by College Rankings. That’s How It’s Supposed to Work.

For the last year or so we’ve heard a great deal about President Barack Obama’s proposed college rating system, the basic outlines of which are, according to a 2013 piece in the New York Times:

A plan to rate colleges…based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.

In general this seems like a good thing. Such a ratings system might look rather like the one we’ve used for almost a decade here at the Monthly. But not everyone’s pleased with the idea.

According to an article at Diverse Issues in Higher Education, some historically black colleges are getting a little uncomfortable:

The HBCU community is now waiting for the anticipated rollout this fall of the ratings system. Some fear that the college ratings may…have unintended negative consequences for HBCUs.

Citing the wide range of higher education institutions across the country, [Morgan State University President David] Wilson questioned the viability of a comprehensive ratings system. “My major concern is that I don’t think we can come up with a rating system in this country that (speaks) to the variety of missions of higher education systems,” he said.

Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told Diverse last week that he is not opposed to the concept of a ratings system, as long as it accounts for the nuances and differences between institutions. But the fact that he and TMF member institutions have had little input into what shape the ratings system will take may put them in a reactionary position by default when the plan is announced.

It’s actually not that hard. Here at the Monthly, many of the country’s HBCUs have long done pretty well on our rankings systems. Georgia’s Spelman College, for instance, ranks 39th in the nation for liberal arts colleges. That’s pretty good. That’s mostly because it does a really awesome job graduating its students. It’s got a 73 percent graduation rate, despite the fact that almost half of its students are poor. Its graduation rate is much higher than we predict based on the percent of students receiving Pell grants.

But not all HBCUs are Spelman. Yes there are “a variety of missions of higher education systems,” but a rating system has to point out when some schools aren’t doing a very good job. “If the system is not done properly, one that understands and respects all of the nuances that exist between institutions,” Taylor said it in the Diverse article, “it will harm HBCUs, period.”

Well, OK, but Morgan State University (Wilson’s school) ranks 179th among national universities in our rankings this year. That low ranking is not because we failed to “understand and respect all of the nuances that exist between institutions.” No, we’re aware of the nuances, the school just has a 30 percent graduation rate. That’s lower than we should expect based on the percent of students at the school who are poor.

Some schools should be harmed by the proposed rankings. That’s how it works. That’s designed to encourage better behavior by schools in the future.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer