Over the years, people have attributed the economic inequality in higher education to a variety of conditions: the advantage given to legacy students, the lack of extensive and well-communicated financial aid opportunities and the altogether inscrutable college admissions process. Now, a new factor has been thrown into the mix: the college ranking system.
University rankings have long been criticized for being opaque, inaccurate and reductive. But these lists — particularly the recently released U.S. News and World Report College Rankings — have far greater implications for the higher education landscape than simply misleading high school seniors. According to a new report from Politico, the criteria used in the U.S. News’ ranking decisions can directly feed into systems of economic inequality on campuses, creating perverse incentives for colleges to favor wealthier students.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at the various factors taken into consideration by the U.S. News rankings formula. They include low acceptance rates, which can incentivize colleges to favor early decision applicants over low-income applicants who tend to apply later; students’ performance on standardized tests, which correlates with family income; and financial resources and alumni giving, which can result in colleges accepting more legacy applicants to ensure their parents will continue donating. All of these focus areas implicitly favor students from wealthier backgrounds. And this doesn’t even account for the most egregious criterion of all: reviews from high school guidance counselors at high-performing (and often elite) schools, which somehow determine 7.5 percent of the ranking.
Meanwhile other critical factors are left out of the equation. Financial aid opportunities, student satisfaction levels and well-being indicators, to list a few obvious points of interest, were not included. What about economic diversity, socioeconomic mobility, health and counseling services, responsiveness to assault and misconduct allegations, housing conditions, the diversity of the faculty and student body or students’ living costs? As you can imagine, none of these criteria are directly factored into the U.S. News rankings — or any other popular set of rankings, for that matter.
It would be easy to argue that these aspects of a college education are difficult to quantify, and in some cases that is fair. But, as researchers from the Equality of Opportunity Project (including Brown’s own Associate Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs John N. Friedman) have already shown, economic diversity and mobility at different schools can and have been compared. There is no excuse for not integrating these types of data into college rankings, especially not in an era when debates about education are driven by notions of equity.
Yet, despite the sizable gaps in the methodology used by the U.S. News, its metrics still have an enormous impact on the strategic decisions of college administrations. Politico reached out to over 20 former and current education officials and members of university leadership and found that the vast majority attributed the lack of economic diversity on campuses, at least in part, to the U.S. News rankings. Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, told Politico that the annual listing has a “mind-boggling” effect on administrative decisions. F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, went even further: “I think U.S. News has done more damage to the higher education marketplace than any single enterprise that’s out there.”
That’s a lot to place on one ranking measure, and we should take this with a grain of salt. But it should still be alarming that so many stakeholders involved in higher education take issue with the U.S. News system. So what can we do about it?
Well, for a start, colleges need to stop manipulating the ranking system at the cost of student diversity and inclusion. Admittedly, that is easier said than done, since the prestige that comes with a high rank often leads to more funding opportunities, applicants, faculty prospects and research capabilities. Still, elite universities — and particularly the Ivy League institutions — have some leverage to cast the rankings aside and find their own way forward; the top 20 institutions remain largely the same year over year, and the difference of a few ranks in one direction or the other is unlikely to make a significant difference. Instead of worrying about whether they rank 14th or 18th on the U.S. News list, college administrations should publicly acknowledge that these composite ranking systems are inherently flawed and move away from the rat race.
At the same time, analysts must develop more comprehensive and equitable metrics to assess the quality of universities. The College Scorecard website, created by President Obama’s Department of Education, and the Equality of Opportunity Project’s mobility report cards are a step in the right direction, but campuses need to do a better job communicating and reacting to these measurements.
As for students — high school and college students alike — there is a simple solution: Stop reading the U.S. News rankings. Base your decisions on curricula, campus environments, facilities, professors and, yes, any data you can find on campus inequality. These are all better measures than a system that has been described as “the greatest inefficiency ranking in America.”
Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.