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New ACE Analysis Scrutinizes Impacts of College Ranking Systems

March 19, 2014

Rankings Issue Brief cover


​A new ACE issue brief finds that college rankings often have detrimental effects on institutions and that students—particularly low-income students—do not use them when choosing among their higher education options.

The ACE Center for Policy, Research & Strategy’s Rankings, Institutional Behavior, and College and University Choice is intended to add research-based context to the Obama administration’s plan to rate colleges on value and affordability. It explores research on college rankings based on widespread concern in the higher education community that the administration’s proposed system will become another de facto ranking and be treated as such by students, their families and institutions.

“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 lead 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, especially for low-income students.”

The brief analyzes data released last month by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) and other research, finding:

  • Fewer than a quarter of all students said rankings were “very important” in their college decisions, with a nine percentage point gap between low (15 percent) and high-income students (24 percent) and a 14 percentage point gap between students attending low (10 percent) and highly (24 percent) selective institutions.
  • For low-income students, location was a bigger factor—25 percent of these students said staying close to home was very important. Similarly, 27 percent of first-generation students also said selecting an institution near home was very important, as opposed to 18 percent of non-first-generation students.
  • How students use measures of institutional quality (e.g., SAT scores, student-faculty ratio, degree completion rates, etc.) is up for debate. While some research suggests students tend to factor in graduates’ labor market outcomes, other analysis suggests that they rarely consider graduation rates and average student debt in their decisions.

In terms of institutional behavior, popular rankings tend to place more value on the talents of incoming classes than on student outcomes, and can have unintended influence on admissions. For instance, if selectivity is valued by a ranking system, institutions tend to become more selective—which can disadvantage low-income students.

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

The brief, along with the higher education community’s comments on the administration’s plan, are both available on ACE’s website.

MEDIA CONTACT: Ginnie Titterton ▪ 202-939-9367 ▪ ​

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