Rankings, Institutional Behavior, and College and University Choice - PDF

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Citing the simultaneous needs to equip more Americans with postsecondary degrees and to keep higher education accessible, President Obama’s second-term higher education agenda has a strong focus on affordability, part of which is his proposed Postsecondary Institutions Rating System, or PIRS, slated to roll out in 2015–16. With an emphasis on ensuring higher education “value,” the department has framed the tool as one that will empower students and families to choose the best college or university for them, and has plans to ask Congress to tie Title IV funds to institutional performance in PIRS.

Although the administration has tried to quell fears that its plan will become yet another higher education “ranking” system, there remains belief that the ratings scheme will nonetheless become a de facto ranking of institutions. The higher education rankings enterprise has been shown to influence institutional decision making, and in many cases to further stratify America’s already hierarchical system of higher education. There are a number of consequences to such behavior, some of which can be positive, but most of which have negative implications for low-income student access to the nation’s top colleges and universities.

In addition to the research literature on the role of rankings in higher education, this issue brief discusses the role of rankings in how students select an institution. Newly available data from the University of California, Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute shows that national rankings are not a driving factor in student decisions, and are even less relevant for students from low-income backgrounds. More salient sources of information include family involvement and encouragement, peer and other networks, and school- and higher education institution-based resources, including those that are semi-customized.

Lorelle L. Espinosa, Jennifer R. Crandall, Malika Tukibayeva