Last week Education Secretary Miguel Cardona slammed college ranking systems that placed importance on high selectivity in admissions, saying at a summit on excellence and equity in higher education:
In 2018, U.S. News modified the way it calculates its rankings, dropping data for admission rates — which focused attention on the most highly selective schools — and putting some focus on low-income students. But the top results didn’t much change; Princeton University has been at No. 1 on the national universities rankings for nearly a dozen years.
Other organizations have found different ways to rank colleges, and this post is about how Third Way, a Washington-based think tank, does it: by defining the value of a college based on the proportion of lower-income students it enrolls and the economic benefit it provides them.
This piece was written by Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at Third Way. He also served as director of the Education Department’s College Scorecard during the Obama administration.
By Michael Itzkowitz
These are statements you don’t often hear: Harvard is a fourth-tier institution. In fact, it ranks 847th out of 1,320 bachelor’s degree-granting institutions across the United States.
But if you measure colleges in terms of the economic mobility they actually provide — rather than exclusivity and test scores — they are spot-on.
I’ve been studying the value of colleges for years, and some of my research — along with the popularity of college rankings — has led me to ask some basic questions about how we evaluate colleges.
Do college rankings actually reflect the purpose of our higher education system? Or are they simply a tool to generate the same list of well-resourced and selective schools year after year?
I assume you can guess the conclusion that I came to. But if the purpose of higher education is to lift the next generation up and leave them better off — rather than just reproduce the class divides that already exist — how do we effectively measure that?
In 2020, Third Way and I introduced a concept known as the Price-to-Earnings Premium, which looks at the cost that students actually pay out-of-pocket relative to the earnings “boost” that they obtain by attending a specific institution. This allows prospective students to estimate the time it will take to recoup the cost of earning a degree. Then, I looked at this premium specifically for low-income students.
As I ran the numbers, I sat in excitement waiting for the results to come up. But the data surprised me. The schools that popped up at the top? Duke, Stanford, William & Mary, Harvard and Yale universities. The institutions where low-income students received the best return on investment essentially mimicked the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings.
But one thing about all of these schools at the top of the list stood out: Every one of them enroll fewer than one in five students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds. If you’re one of the few and fortunate to get admitted, you will probably get a great return on investment. However, most people’s chances of being admitted are extremely limited. And if you do get accepted, it’s likely that you will end up successful no matter where you enroll.
This wasn’t what I was looking for, but it did lead me to create a new way to rate institutions, known as the Economic Mobility Index. Rather than prioritizing selectivity and test scores — as traditional college rankings do — the EMI defines the value a college provides based on the proportion of lower-income students it enrolls, in addition to the economic benefit they receive.
Incorporating both of these outcomes provides a better indication of the colleges that are actually delivering on the promise of the higher education system as a whole — schools that are opening the door to a degree and lifting students up throughout the socioeconomic ladder.
The result? Schools that top the U.S. News list — Princeton, Harvard and Yale universities, for example — drop to #426, #847 and #495, respectively, in terms of the economic mobility they provide.
Instead, schools like those in the California State University System, Texas A&M University and the City University of New York rise to the top. In fact, the top 10 schools are all Hispanic-serving institutions. And historically Black college and universities — which are chronically underfunded and oftentimes nowhere to be found in popular news rankings — secure seven spots in the top 100 schools.
These schools have been delivering on the promise of higher education for years. But most news outlets and college rankings publications provide them with no recognition whatsoever.
It’s time for that to change. Instead of rewarding schools based on the size of their endowments, historical prestige and the test scores of students who enroll, news outlets need to prioritize institutions that provide opportunity and leave most students better off than where they started.
Schools like Harvard may not like this. But if the goal of higher education is to actually lift students up throughout the socioeconomic ladder, Harvard is simply a fourth-tier institution.
You can see more of the rankings here.