Let’s talk about race: Obama’s college rating framework

By now, most people in higher education have glanced at the federal government’s announcement about its forthcoming rating system. After months of soliciting input, the U.S. Department of Education laid out the framework that it plans to use to guide the college rating system.

First and foremost, the rating system is just that, a rating system — it will not include a ranking of colleges and universities. Instead, the ratings will most likely include a presentation of high-performing, low-performing and a middle group of institutions.

Next, the rating system may also group certain types of institutions together, considering selectivity and mission.

{mosads}Third, the rating system will be based on several metrics, many that were suggested by experts on the topic of higher education. These metrics include: percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, expected family contribution, family income quintiles, first-generation college status, average net price, net price by quintile, completion rates, transfer rates, labor market success, graduate school outcomes and loan performance outcomes.

Although it’s commendable that the federal government included these various measures, understands that institutions need to be compared with their peer groups, and also considers some student and institutional characteristics, the proposed rating system does not go far enough in its inclusion of institutional characteristics such as resources. Having more access to resources — endowment, higher tuition dollars and larger percentages of alumni giving — enables institutions to meet college completion goals much more easily than under-resourced institutions. Much like the “credit” that institutions will likely receive for enrolling low-income, Pell Grant recipients, colleges and universities that do more with less need to be credited — possibly singled out — for their ability to contribute to the nation’s completion goals despite having few resources.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the ratings framework is that it does not include language related to equity beyond socioeconomic class. The race and ethnicity of those students served is ignored. Given the discontent in the nation around issues of race, the rapidly changing demographics of the country and the fact that most of our ability to meet President Obama’s college completion goals is dependent on educating more people of color, the omission of a discussion of, and credit for, educating a diverse student body is a glaring oversight.

At some point, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us feel, we have to realize that our nation is one made up of a diversity of individuals, our colleges and universities should enroll this same diversity of people, and that people have different experiences, backgrounds, disadvantages and privileges. We won’t be able to give an accurate and equitable depiction of college performance until we face this realization. Socioeconomic status matters — yes, it does — but let’s talk about race.

Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Tags Department of Education Education policy
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