Blaming the Victims?

September 3, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Since President Obama announced his college ratings plan more than a year ago, many higher education groups here have mounted the political equivalent of a full-court press against the proposal: They’ve lobbied the administration directly, publicly criticized it, and won allies in Congress from both parties, some of whom are now plotting ways to legislatively block the ratings.

But on Tuesday it was another part of higher education pushing back against the ratings proposal on Capitol Hill: academic researchers who study minority students.

The Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, with the support of the American Council on Education and several other groups, gathered more than a half-dozen researchers to present their findings on how a college ratings system might affect underserved students.

The researchers presented papers that, collectively, made the case against the Obama ratings plan -- or, at a minimum, raise serious concerns that such a system would harm education access to minority students.

Nicholas W. Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance, challenged the Obama administration’s promotion of the college ratings system, in part, as a consumer information tool that will help families in choosing a college.

The problem, Hillman said, is that most underprivileged students aren’t deciding among multiple colleges but are rather selecting the institution most conveniently accessible to them geographically.

“Not everyone has the luxury to search around the country or even the state to search for school,” he said.

Hillman’s research focused on identifying what type of educational choices students have in some 700 “commuting zones” across the country -- that is, clusters of counties that share common economies and commuting patterns. He found that more than 10 percent of Americans live in an “education desert,” where students have access to few or no public institutions of higher education.

Those education deserts tend to be distributed across the country along socioeconomic and racial lines. They are more likely to be located in communities, for instance, that have a high Hispanic population and lower levels of degree attainment. A ratings system that penalized institutions serving  those communities wouldn’t push the students into better institutions because there are no other institutions around them, he argued.

Other researchers spoke about the limitations of the data on which the federal government is going to craft its ratings system. Lorelle L. Espinosa, the assistant vice president for policy research and strategy at the American Council on Education, noted that not only is the federal data limited across higher education but those limitations disproportionately affect minority students.

She said, for instance, that half of Latino students are enrolled in college part-time, meaning they won’t be captured by the federal government’s current graduation rate, which measures only first-time, full-time students.

Jamienne Studley, one of the top Education Department officials working on the ratings system, said that the researchers were asking “fair questions” and that the administration shared their concerns about how ratings would affect underprivileged students’ access to higher education.

“You would be pleased to know the conversations that we are having are eerily similar to the ones you are having today,” she told the audience.

Studley offered no details about how the department planned to overcome the researchers’ concerns.

But she did note that department was weighing different ways to adjust the outcomes a ratings system would demand of an institution based on the relative academic preparation of the students it serves. Officials were considering, she said, using students’ high schools, zip codes, and status as a first-generation college goer as proxies for academic preparedness.

In addition, Studley encouraged the audience to look at the “positive side” of the ratings – rather than just focusing on which institutions might lose. For those institutions that are doing a good job of educating underserved populations, Studley said, the ratings system would channel resources into institutions that are “the models and beacons we’re looking to for that kind of success.”

Gary Orfield, the co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project who moderated the event, said that it was “not designed to be an attack on the Obama administration or its proposals,” but rather to spark thoughtful conversation.

He called the ratings system a “high stakes” issue that will affect social mobility and racial inequality in the country.

Education Department officials have said that they will produce a draft of the rating system for public comment by this fall.

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