Graduates of the University of Wisconsin — a land-grant college founded with the help of the 1862 Morrill Act — celebrated in May 2017. (Amber Arnold/AP)
Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of Washington Monthly.

Ever since it declared itself arbiter of college excellence 35 years ago, U.S. News & World Report has ranked schools based on measures of wealth, fame and exclusivity. But when this year’s list was unveiled Monday, it featured a surprising new metric: “social mobility,” defined by the magazine as “how well schools succeed at enrolling and graduating students from low-income families.”

This was seen as a big deal because the magazine’s rankings from the start have reflected the opposite values. By focusing on factors like SAT scores, spending per student, alumni giving and surveys of peer institutional leaders, the rankings have long created incentives for college presidents eager for better U.S. News scores to raise prices, compete for status and market themselves to the children of the affluent. In this way, U.S. News has been both a driver and a validator of an increasingly elitist and dysfunctional American higher education system.

As a longtime critic of U.S. News’s methodology, I’m delighted that the magazine has come around, even if the weight it gives to its social mobility metrics is far less than it ought to be (the Washington Monthly, the magazine I edit, first began ranking colleges by social mobility 13 years ago). But in this instance, U.S. News is less a driver in higher education than a mirror. There has long been a tension between institutions that were founded (and often prefer) to serve a select few and the demands of our democracy. These tensions have led to two great waves of change toward egalitarianism. U.S. News’s move is strong evidence that a third wave is underway.

The first began in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, creating the land-grant college system. Until then, most American colleges taught classical languages and the Bible to budding clergymen and the sons of the prosperous. The Morrill Act gave millions of acres of federal land to states to develop or sell for the building of universities that would “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” through the study of agricultural and mechanical science. This led to the founding or expansion of such flagships as the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State. (Another act was passed in 1890 to include the Southern states that had been in rebellion when the first act passed.)

The second wave of egalitarian reform began during World War II, when Congress passed the GI Bill. Though leaders of elite colleges feared the prospect of hordes of former soldiers descending on their institutions — Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University of Chicago president, famously warned that the bill would create “intellectual hobo jungles” — the legislation proved a huge success. It provided millions of returning veterans with college educations and helped create the world’s first mass middle class. That second wave continued with the 1963 Higher Education Facilities Act, which funded the expansion of campuses and the creation of new ones — especially community colleges — to accommodate the large baby boom generation, and the 1965 Higher Education Act, which, for the first time, provided federal financial aid to any aspiring student who lacked the means to go to college.

In recent decades American expectations of higher education have shifted. Because of changes in the economy, a post-secondary credential has gone from something every American ought to have a right to pursue to something every American needs to pursue just to have a shot at the middle class. Higher education, however, has been drifting in the opposite direction. We’ve lavished more and more attention and dollars on a small number of highly selective schools that increasingly cater to upper-income families, while the bottom 90 percent of students struggle to pay tuition, typically at underfunded public institutions or, worse, at predatory for-profit schools.

Pressure for a third wave of reform has thus built. You see it in rising college enrollment rates among lower-income students, even as all Americans express frustration at rising costs and student debt levels. You see it in pleas by business and philanthropic interests for changes in the system to help a broader range of Americans receive post-secondary skills and credentials. You see it in under-the-radar policy changes that the Obama administration pushed through, such as cutting banks out of the federally subsidized student loan business and directing the savings to expanded Pell grants. You see it in proposals that haven’t been enacted because of our polarized politics — for instance, in the calls for “free college” that emerged unexpectedly in the 2016 Democratic primary race and that just one, Democratic-controlled state, New York, has since addressed, with a program offering free tuition to middle-class students. You see it in reform ideas that are gaining traction in Washington on both sides of the aisle, such as allowing federal funding for short-term vocational certificates and prison-based college programs. And you see it in a few proposals that have actually become law — specifically, a tax on large university endowments that was part of last year’s tax bill and that the higher-ed lobby hates.

Still, the third wave of reform faces powerful resistance within certain corners of the Republican Party, including in the Trump administration, and is unlikely to gain full force under current political arrangements. A telling example is the “gainful employment rule.” Put into place after years of court challenges by the for-profit college industry, the regulation would have cut off federal financial aid to career-focused schools whose graduates earn so little that they can’t pay back their loans. While the rule might have saved countless lower-income students from ruin, the Trump administration overturned it, citing the need to “increase opportunities for workforce readiness.”

History suggests that the third wave will kick in only with a major shift in political power. The original Morrill Act actually passed in 1857, over the opposition of “states’ rights” Southern lawmakers, but it was vetoed in 1859 by Democratic President James Buchanan. It became law only after secession, when the Republican Party had unified control of the government. The GI Bill and the Higher Education Act garnered some bipartisan support but, again, happened because of unified party control of Washington, in this case by the Democrats.

The elections this November and in 2020 will have a great deal to do with whether the third wave continues or stalls. But the fact that U.S. News & World Report, long the defender of the existing hierarchy and status quo in higher education, has changed its methodology, even slightly, is a sign of where things are ultimately headed.

Twitter: @glastris

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