Phi Beta Cons

‘Education Deserts’ and Accountability

The discussion about a proposed federal college rating system has raised concerns that ratings, while potentially beneficial to middle-class students, may impose new burdens on aspiring college students from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. 

An issue that has recently emerged is the potentially damaging impact of the proposed ratings on “education deserts,” or geographical areas with few schools from which to choose. The schools that do serve these areas, some argue, should be immune from losing funding. That is to say, a rating system might provide useful information for a student deciding between multiple institutions, but for those who can only choose the geographically accessible option regardless, the de-funding of such schools on the basis of low ratings could be harmful.

The argument, however, rests on questionable assumptions. First, one must assume that attending a failing school is better than not going at all. But is it wise to incentivize students to attend a sub-standard institution? Those with low graduation rates are likely as not to leave students saddled with debt and with nothing to show for it. 

This focus on the geographic distribution of schools, moreover, is rooted in an outdated model of higher ed. As resources and options for online education improve and increase, access to brick and mortar schools holds diminishing value.

In fact, eliminating the option of going to a very bad, but “traditional,” brick and mortar institution might encourage more students to consider online education. Given that many online providers have proven to be just as effective as traditional schools while requiring far less actual instruction time, this would be a good incentive indeed.

Underprivileged and non-traditional students stand the most to gain. Not only is online education a low-cost option, it’s an option that allows more flexibility to balance other obligations like work or family. And because many online programs are self-paced and competency, rather than credit, based, online learning may well enable more effective instruction—exactly the kind of results-based thinking that motivated calls for a ratings system in the first place. Rather than worrying that putting bad schools out of business may leave some students with no options, we should be excited for the many new options that will rush to fill the void.

Alex McHugh — Alex McHugh is a research associate at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). He also coordinates ACTA¹s social media presence. He graduated from American University in 2014 with ...

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