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Who gets left behind in the college rankings race?

Critics say the influential U.S. News and World Report college rankings ultimately contributes to income inequality


Princeton University campus Princeton University, Office of Communications

Who gets left behind in the college rankings race?

U.S. News and World Report issued its latest college rankings Tuesday, a consumer-style shopping guide many parents and students depend on when making higher education decisions.

For the seventh year in a row, Princeton University took the top spot on the best national universities list. Harvard University came second, the University of Chicago and Yale University tied for third, and Columbia, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tied for fifth place. Williams College ranked top of the national liberal arts colleges list, with Amherst, Bowdoin, Swathmore, and Wellesley rounding out the top five. But if parents can’t afford to spend more than $45,000 per year on tuition and fees, students need to look a little farther down those lists.

And that’s a huge problem that ultimately contributes to the country’s economic inequality, critics of the ranking system say.

According to a scathing Politico story published Monday, the U.S. News and World Report rankings push schools to cater to wealthy students, and not just with sky-high tuition costs. The rankings reward metrics like student performance on standardized tests, lower acceptance rates, and alumni giving. Students from wealthier families do better on standardized tests, have more help navigating the application process, and are more likely to have parents that can afford to give to their alma mater, boosting their offspring’s admissions chances. More than 40 percent of Harvard’s class of 2021 had family members who attended the university.

The overall preference for students from wealthier families means that fewer poor students have access to higher education and, by extension, the American dream, critics say. Some even blame higher education elitism for President Donald Trump’s election.

“It fits perfectly into Trump’s narrative. … Basically, if you’re a low-income or working-class white student who works hard and you find out that what matters in admissions is who your daddy is, or what your race is, you’re completely left out,” Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told Politico. “When a politician like Donald Trump comes along and says the system is rigged, you’re very likely to believe that. In this case, it is rigged—against those students.”

Politico cited one report that found students from families among the top quartile of income-earners account for 72 percent of enrollment at the most competitive colleges and universities. Current and former college presidents told Politico the U.S. News and World Report rankings have become so influential that many colleges strategically allocate resources to boost their scores in certain metrics, including increasing faculty salaries and offering scholarships for students with high test scores, regardless of financial need. One former university chancellor noted those metrics discourage frugality because if schools spend less, even if it’s for the same quality professors and students, they can drop in the rankings. And more spending means higher tuition.

The Politico analysis likely will provide ammunition to those who advocate for free tuition at public universities, a plan with its own unintended negative consequences. But many conservatives note a college degree isn’t the only way to achieve the American dream. In fact, it’s often the best way to impede that quest, especially for students who graduate with gobs of student loan debt. Other free market advocates note “rich kids” help subsidize tuition for those who can’t afford list price.

No matter what critics say, parents and students will continue to rely on U.S. News and World Report until someone comes up with a better ranking system. A little healthy competition would benefit everyone, rich and poor.

Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Betsy DeVos’ pursuit of justice

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced last week plans to scrap Obama-era rules for colleges and universities dealing with sexual assault claims on campus. She plans to replace the old guidance with a new policy, written with input from administrators and victims’ advocates and adopted only after the standard public comment process.

The DeVos announcement did not come as any surprise, and neither did most of the reactions. Detractors said she would make it easier for men to prey on women and get away with it. One community college professor even suggested on Twitter he wouldn’t mind seeing DeVos assaulted—so she would have more empathy for victims.

“Don’t be duped by today’s announcement. What seems merely procedural is a blunt attack on survivors of sexual assault,” Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement. “It will discourage schools from taking steps to comply with the law—just at the moment when they are finally working to get it right. And it sends a frightening message to all students: Your government does not have your back if your rights are violated.”

But other DeVos critics greeted the announcement with cautious optimism.

“Before the Obama administration instructed colleges and universities that they had to take sexual-assault allegations seriously—or risk losing federal funds—the system was way too disposed to discourage complaints,” wrote Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. “But the Obama administration’s move also prompted an overcorrection at some institutions that failed to do enough to protect the rights of students accused of wrongdoing.”

Obama’s Title IX policy might have as many critics as DeVos’. But if she can write a new policy that gives both victims and accused perpetrators hope for justice, she could find herself with more friends than enemies (and possibly fewer Twitter trolls). —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Congress nixes federal school choice plan

It looks like Congress will not give President Donald Trump the money he requested to start a federal school choice program. Lawmakers rejected the president’s $1 billion bid to boost spending for Title I, the program that gives schools extra money to serve poor students. The Trump administration proposed using the funds to help public schools expand or start choice programs. The Education Department proposed using a different program to boost private school choice.

But the spending bill approved last week by the Senate appropriations committee does not include funding for school choice, and specifically prohibits Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from using any other allotted funds to create a school choice program without congressional approval. Both Republicans and Democrats who approved the bill called nixing the school choice proposals a key step to reaching a deal both groups could support. The spending bill still needs final approval from the full Senate. —L.J.

School choice backlash

Arizona officials say opponents of the state’s education savings account program have enough signatures to force a referendum on its planned expansion. Lawmakers in Arizona approved the first education savings account program in the nation in 2011, making the funds available only to disabled students. Earlier this year, they expanded it to include all students, although they capped enrollment to prevent a mass exodus from public schools. Arizona law allows voters to overturn bills passed by the legislature, as long as opponents collect enough signatures to trigger an election within 90 days of the legislative session ending. School choice advocates are challenging the petition drive’s legality on procedural grounds, but lawmakers are already considering a repeal to avoid the referendum. —L.J.

Who says there’s no such thing?

Education officials in New York City announced last week they will offer free lunches to all students, starting this year. About three-quarters of the city’s students already qualify for free lunch, but they don’t all get it because parents don’t fill out the proper paperwork. Expanding the program to all students will “ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. Other school districts in poor, urban areas already offer universal free lunch, including Boston and Detroit. —L.J.


Leigh Jones Leigh is acting managing editor for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.

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Hans

This is an unfortunate assessment of the situation. You say, "A degree from Harvard isn't more valuable than a degree from some little-known liberal arts college in middle America," which is not true on a number of different levels. A business degree from the Wharton School of Business or HBS is significantly more likely to raise the profile of your resume than an MBA from Cedarville. The information you learn in class might be the same in some instances, but because the elite schools are so selective, it carries with it a kind of weight that is not entirely illegitimate. Secondly, and related to that, the places of higher prestige like the Ivies attract excellent students and excellent faculty because they come with higher prestige, which means that the educational resources available at these universities are truly phenomenal. Harvard's library, for example, has something like 6,000,000 volumes, and they have around a $63B endowment. On the one hand, that's obscene wealth. On the other hand, it means that they are able to leverage that money towards projects that would otherwise have no chance at less prestigious universities. But this is a cycle too, because their prestige means they attract excellent students from around the world, they are able to be extremely selective and by and large only choose excellent students, which maintains the reputation (and secures even more donations).

 

I have had the opportunity to attend both a middle America liberal arts college, where I received a great education, and also an Ivy League institution, where I also received a great education (don't judge me, hah). There are differences, and there are some things that a high quality small liberal arts college can do very well, especially at an undergraduate level (like smaller student-faculty ratio, greater individual attention, and more discussion based classes for example). But the resources available at the elite institutions are hard to compare, and the chance to study under scholars who have literally shaped the fields that they are working in is unparalleled, which is, of course, precisely why these colleges continue to maintain their standing. I think that the stereotypes about entitled students are probably not entirely without merit, by which I mean I am sure some students are quite horrid, selfish, and arrogant people, but I actually found myself deeply impressed with the sincerity and congeniality of the majority of the students (and faculty) with whom I interacted, which was all the more striking since I went expecting essentially to find the stereotype you describe.

 

It is also worth pointing out in response to your comment that the college fees are inflated at the Ivy Leagues as everywhere else, but they offer excellent financial aid, which means that students of poor families literally go for free.