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The idea may seem reasonable enough — ensure that federal student aid is directed to colleges that deserve it.

But one year after President Barack Obama floated a college-ratings system that would grade schools on access, affordability and outcomes such as graduation rates and graduate earnings, the plan continues to find critics in the higher education world.

A main point of contention: If the system emphasizes students' ability to earn degrees, schools that serve higher percentages of African-American or Latino students would be unfairly graded and inadvertently hurt.

A trio of scholars including Stella Flores, associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, released a study this week that argues a "racial college completion gap" exists before students get to college.

"A straightforward comparison of these measures would be fair only if all colleges were working with similarly prepared students who have similar resources," the report reads. "As such, it would be unfair to evaluate and punish a college and its students on the basis of pre-college factors that the college has no ability to control."

This sort of system could result in "serious bias," the study goes on to say: Colleges, particularly those that serve students of color, could lose eligibility for financial aid for not meeting academic outcomes that they have little control in influencing.

From the outset, many college presidents bemoaned the idea of the federal government taking on a role typically played by magazines and other publications. A final proposal is still under development and would likely face a high bar to clear Congress — if it ever gets to that point.

On Tuesday, Flores was joined by other education professors in Washington to present research on the effects the new accountability system could have on minority-serving institutions. The Civil Rights Project of UCLA hosted panel members who noted that most black students rely on student loans to pay for college.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has framed the ratings idea as helping young families and students have more information to make college choices. Yet a top education official at Tuesday's event acknowledged that researchers raised "very appropriate questions."

"The conversations we are having (at the department) are eerily similar to the one I've heard this morning," The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley saying. She added that the idea is not simply to punish low-performing schools.

That there's a racial gap between students in completing college is indisputable.

While 62 percent of full-time white college students earned a degree in 2012, according to The College Board, the percentage was 50.6 percent for Hispanic students and 40.3 percent for African-American students.

Flores' study, by looking at a cohort of students who graduated from Texas in 2002, found that 61 percent of those gaps are attributable to "pre-college characteristics." These items included academic preparedness and coursework prior to entering college as well as economic circumstances.

Schools with the highest concentrations of minorities include those designated as historically black colleges and universities. Nashville has four of them: American Baptist College, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University.

"I don't think any educator is going to say, 'Don't hold institutions accountable,' " Flores told The Tennessean, "but what we're arguing here is, 'Let's use better data to have a more fair system and understand where the breakdown in achievement happens.'

"What these schools are inheriting are the educational histories of these students."

Assisting Flores on her study, "The Racial College-Completion Gap: Evidence from Texas," were Dominque Baker, a Vanderbilt Ph.D. student, and Toby Park, assistant professor of economics of education and education policy at Florida State University.

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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