Earning a college degree used to be a proven way to climb the social mobility ladder but a new Politico investigation suggests universities all over the United States are reinforcing existing wealth.

According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the country’s elite universities such as Yale or Princeton admit more students coming from families whose earnings are in the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent combined. Writing for Politico, Benjamin Wermund argues that the U.S. News rankings are at least partly to blame for this situation. These rankings rely on criteria which reward schools that favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants.

When universities chase questionable rankings, students get left behind

The assumption is that the more a school spends per student, the better its ranking ought to be, with little concern for economic efficiency. The downside is that a system predicated on wealth fosters a growing resentful underclass. Studies already report that economic mobility in the United States is seriously hindered, making many question the fabled American Dream. One 2015 report by the Center on Poverty and Inequality, for instance, used recent IRS data to show that ‘roughly half of parental income advantages are passed onto the next generation in the form of higher earnings.’

One obvious way to bridge the wealth gap is to ensure that more and more of the population earns a college degree. With a degree, individuals coming from low-income families can get better-paying jobs and have a better career outlook. If anything, today’s academic paradigm seems to run contrary to this thinking.

Part of the problem is that schools are now chasing the US News rankings which for the past 24 years has compared national colleges and universities using questionable criteria.

  • Graduation and retention rates (22.5%). Schools are basically rewarded for graduating more students. This advantages both low-income and high-income students. Top universities have fewer low-income students who are less likely to drop out, however, so their rankings climb.
  • Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%). This questionable criterion is based on scores which college deans, presidents, and provosts give to other universities. Many critics have voiced concerns that some university leaders might score rivals lowers just to boost their own campus score.
  • Student selectivity (12.5%). SAT and ACT scores make up 65 percent of a university’s selectivity ranking while high school standing accounts for another 25 percent. Standardized tests disproportionately benefit students from families which can afford to pay for test preparation. One 2016 report found students from the top income bracket scored more than 130 points higher on all portions of the SAT than their peers in the bottom bracket.
  • Faculty resources (20%) and Financial resources (10%). This simply measures how much a school spends per student and faculty. This motivates schools to keep class size small and accept more well-off students who don’t require financial aid and thus free up resources to pay faculty more.
  • Alumni giving (5%). US News seems to think that giving indirectly correlates to student satisfaction. This is a rather flawed assumption, however, since Ivy League schools are known to court alumni for donations. According to Harvard Crimson, more than 40% of Harvard’s class of 2021 have family members who attended before them.
  • Graduation rate performance (7.5%). This is perhaps the only criterion that advantages low-income students. This portion rewards schools that are working to help the most disadvantaged students.

“We’re not setting the admissions standards at any schools,” said Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News who develops the methodologies and surveys for the rankings. “Our main mission for our rankings is to provide information for prospective students and their parents, and we’re measuring academic quality. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we believe we’ve been driving transparency in higher education data. Our methodology and the data we’ve chosen for the best colleges rankings is to measure which schools are the top in academic excellence.”

The backlash

It’s not only elite colleges and universities that are chasing these rankings. The Southern Methodist University in Dallas organized a one-billion dollar fundraiser to purposely improve many of the areas ranked by US News. Baylor University, a private Christian school in Texas, invested hundreds of millions into faculty salaries and program that might rank them higher. They even have a stated goal of breaking the top 50 schools within ten years. Baylor University is now ranked #71, up four positions from their 2012 standing.

This sort of spending means additional resources are required. Most often than not, tuitions are affected. For instance, in 2002, Baylor students were charged $17,214 a year in tuition and fees, but that figure quickly soared to $44,040 in 2017. Overall, tuition at public colleges and universities has increased by at least 28 percent over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Georgia State University reduced admission emphasis on SAT scores, preferring to focus on high school scores, which it found to be a better predictor of academic performance. Georgia State has also doubled the number of students on Pell Grants, who now make 60 percent of its student body.  The bottom 60 percent of income earners rose by 11 percentage points from 2000 to 2011, to 54 percent. Georgia State is thus a successful model that motivates low-income students to succeed. Despite these achievements, the university dropped 30 spots in the US News ranking.

All of this raises serious questions about the validity of a higher education system where tuition fees are already skyrocketing. Of course, no one can force US News to revise its rankings. And maybe that’s beside the point because at the end of the day universities ought to guide their policies with the public’s best interest in mind.

“If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” Brit Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland system, told Politico. “You need both more college graduates in the economy and you need many more low-income students getting the benefit of higher education — and U.S. News and World Report has metrics that work directly in opposition to accomplishing those two things that our nation so badly needs.”

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