Students Don't Actually Care That Much About College Rankings

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COLLEGE STUDENTS CAMPUS
In this photo taken Oct. 23, 2013, University of Washington students walk on the campus between classes in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson, File) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Although college rankings play a significant role in the decisions that colleges and universities make, few students actually pay attention to them, according to a report issued last week.

The American Council on Education published a report Wednesday explaining why President Barack Obama's pursuit of a federal rating system for colleges and universities won't bring about the improvements the administration wants from schools.

As evidence, the ACE points out that existing college rankings already introduce havoc and uncertainty to the higher education system.

"They influence institutions' strategic positioning and planning, staffing and organization, quality assurance, resource allocation and fundraising, and admissions and financial aid," the ACE report says of college rankings, adding that "negative consequences" frequently arise as a result.

Such consequences include schools being rewarded in rank for denying students admission, thus making them appear more selective, or for having more students with high SAT or ACT scores, which tends to favor students from affluent backgrounds.

The proposed federal ratings system would grade colleges and universities on measures like access, affordability and student outcomes. The federal government would then allocate aid based on those ratings, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

ACE is intent on showing this is a bad idea, and part of its argument is that students don't really pay attention rankings in the first place.

Twenty-four percent of college freshmen from wealthy backgrounds said that rankings were a "very important" factor in deciding where to go to school, the highest proportion among any demographic, according to data from the 2013 Higher Education Research Institute Cooperative Institutional Research Program cited in the report. Among low- and middle-income students, the proportion of those who said college rankings were "very important" was only about 10 percent.

Research also suggests that people who are more engaged in reviewing college rankings tend to be high-achieving students from wealthier families who are more willing to live away from home, and are less likely to be the first in their family to attend college.

In other words, a student graduating as valedictorian of her private high school in a Kansas City suburb is probably checking the U.S. News & World Report top 50 rankings to decide which elite East Coast schools to apply to. By contrast, a straight-A middle-class student at a nearby public school in Kansas City is more likely deciding between the University of Kansas or Kansas State University -- both good schools, but much closer to home than the institutions that tend to fill out a national top 10 list.

Lower- and middle-income students, the ACE report notes, tend to care about rankings much less than financial aid.

The metrics on which the Obama administration wants to rate colleges are highly complex, the ACE argues, adding that such efforts are "well-intentioned but poorly devised" with the current available data. And since low-income students already tend not to care about college rankings, there's no reason for the ACE to believe they'll start paying attention to federal ratings.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insists that the proposed federal rating system would be significantly different from existing college rankings, such as those issued by U.S. News & World Report. But college leaders have been mostly critical of the Obama administration's proposal.

The ACE, which represents colleges and universities on Capitol Hill, has vowed "to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics, which could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help."