A significant, and very much influential, segment of the population seems to be happy with college rankings just the way they are. A closer look reveals that it is to the higher-income families that the college rankings and the top-ranked colleges, themselves, appeal the most. These families routinely pay the full freight, make large donations, and tout the college to others, feeding in to the reputational self- fulfilling prophecy.
To that point, a study published by The Equality of Opportunity Project and discussed in the New York Times recently, showed that at 38 of the top-ranked colleges in the U.S., enrolled significantly more students coming from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire lower 60 percent of the scale. The same researchers developed and used a measure of a college’s mobility rate, which combines a college’s share of students from lower-income families with its success at propelling them from the bottom 40 percent into the upper 40 percent of the income distribution, and they found that none of the elite colleges and universities had a high mobility rate. In fact, the colleges with the highest mobility rates were not elite colleges but the mid-tier and public colleges.
This shows that the less elite colleges are more important engines of income and social mobility. Nevertheless, with widely publicized college rankings, and the pressure they create, that’s a hard message to sell. As professors Bastedo and Bowman’s research shows, rankings drive reputation, and of course reputation drives ranking.
For low- and middle-income families, college has long meant upward economic mobility: the degree to which children have a higher standard of living than their parents. However, the perpetuation of the reputation myths created by rankings undermines the ability of parents and students to pick the colleges that best meet students’ academic needs and their budgets. They create unreachable aspirations among a vast majority of potential students. They add expenses to college and university budgets that could be better spent on improving the educational experience for their students. And they do little to affect the upward mobility of students.
It is true that for the more discerning parents, there are some alternative rankings: Washington Monthly ranks colleges for their social mobility, while also offering regional lists of what it calls ‘Best bang for the buck colleges’. Forbes offers also a variety of alternative rankings (which can potentially lead to an information overload). And recently, the Economist created its ranking of best U.S. Universities, where the economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much its students subsequently earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere’. Regardless, the colleges and universities that capture the dreams and imagination of most Americans remain unchanged.
I am reminded of a conversation with one low-income parent from Chelsea, MA, who related to me, “Despite all the schools that had admitted her, she still didn’t care. She was still waiting for Harvard. So one day, I came home and she was burying her head like this. I said, ‘Hello.’ She looks at me and she’s crying. And I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Oh, mama, they denied me,’ she said.”
We owe it to all of the families seeking the best education for their children at a cost they can bear, and to the colleges all across the country who do the hard work of educating each new generation, a system that is less dependent upon marketing and the maintenance of social and income barriers, and more dependent upon rewarding colleges for being engines of social and economic mobility.