Murphy: Half in favor of college rankings

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

September 29, 2020

By James Murphy

Murphy is a Senior Policy Analyst with Education Reform Now, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank.

Alert the marketing department! Email the alumni! The 2020 U.S. News and World Report Best College ranking list is out. Let the criticism begin!

The annual ranking, intended to be a tool for students and families, has come to incentivize all kinds of bad behavior among colleges and universities. In the past few decades, too many schools increased their budget for climbing walls and dining halls instead of teaching and research. But what if the college rankings pushed good behavior?

In fact, they already do, just not hard enough. Two years ago, at the urging of Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), U.S. News implemented a social mobility measure in its college rankings as a way to nudge colleges to increase socioeconomic diversity and boost graduation rates.

Higher education does not need a nudge, though. It needs a shove. Consider Virginia. Almost 30% of all U.S. college students receive federal Pell Grants, which typically go to individuals from households with incomes less than $60,000, but at several Virginia universities, including the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Christopher Newport, not even 15% of undergraduates receive Pell Grants. Virginia Tech does slightly better at 16%, but before we pat it on the back, let’s note that it still lags far behind Virginia Commonwealth (28%) and George Mason (30%). At Hampton University about 40% of students get Pell Grants, but almost half its undergraduates do not graduate, arguably leaving them worse off than if they had never enrolled.

Social mobility rankings have to walk the line between access and completion. They should not reward a place like Liberty University, which enrolls a large number of students with Pell Grants but only graduated 35% of them in 2018. Nor should they overrate somewhere like Washington & Lee University, which has a high graduation rate for low-income students but enrolls them at one of lowest rates in the nation.

Unbelievably, the Washington Monthly magazine’s 2020 Best Colleges ranking puts Virginia’s Washington & Lee at number two among liberal arts colleges for social mobility. To see just how off this ranking is, compare it to the number one school, Berea College.

Washington and Lee and Berea sit on opposite sides of the Appalachian Mountains, enroll fewer than 2,000 undergraduates, and have billion dollar endowments. The similarities pretty much end there. Between 2015 and 2017, more than 80% of Berea students on average had Pell Grants. At Washington & Lee, just 9% of students did. An influential 2017 study ranked Washington & Lee in the absolute bottom nationally for social mobility and showed it enrolled more than twice as many students from the top 1% of income as from the bottom 60%.

Washington Monthly gets its social mobility ranking so wrong with schools like Washington & Lee, Lafayette College, Colgate University, and other liberal arts colleges because it places too much weight on what happens to low-income students after they enroll and not enough on how many enroll.

The U.S. News social mobility score uses a simple, but smart approach to address both access and completion. It compares graduation rates of low-income students and weights them by how many students received Pell Grants.

The problem with U.S. News is while it goes for the right targets on social mobility, it doesn’t put enough force behind them. A mere 5% of a college or university’s ranking is derived from its social mobility score. Even that small change in methodology appears to have hurt William and Mary, which dropped six spots after the social mobility score was introduced.

Imagine the impact if U.S. News made the social mobility ranking count for a third of the ranking, as Washington Monthly does. Instead of building lazy rivers and phone banks to pump alumni for donations, universities would need to get more creative and competitive about recruiting the tens and tens of thousands of highly qualified low-income students across the country. The dual emergency of the pandemic and the recession make expanding access to high quality higher education more important than ever.

Action awaits in Congress. A long-standing bill introduced by House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) to increase college access and completion would make many significant improvements in support of college affordability, but it doesn’t push leading non-profit colleges actually to admit and enroll more capable students from low-income and working-class families. Eventually, Congress will act on higher education and hopefully reward or challenge selective colleges to boost social mobility. In the meantime, the college rankings can still be a force for good. But first, they need to be good.

Originally ran in the Roanoke Times