Home > Uncategorized > NYTimes College Rankings Measure What’s Important: Opportunities for Upward Mobility

NYTimes College Rankings Measure What’s Important: Opportunities for Upward Mobility

Hats off to NYTimes columnist David Leonardt for his effort to devise an publicize the College Access Index, a college ranking metric released in yesterdays’ Times article titled “The Assault on Colleges— and the American Dream”. Unlike the USNews and World Report‘s index, which relies heavily on test scores and endowments, the College Access Index measures each colleges commitment to economic diversity. It bases this commitment on a metric that factors in the percentage of graduates who received Pell Grants, which are issued to students who can least afford college, and the colleges’ net price. As the title of Leonardt’s article intimates, our country appears to be headed in the wrong direction when it comes to providing opportunities for advancement. He opens his article with these chilling paragraphs:

The country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility is under assault.

Public colleges have an unmatched record of lofting their students into the middle class and beyond. For decades, they have enrolled teenagers and adults from modest backgrounds, people who are often the first member of their family to attend college, and changed their trajectories.

Over the last several years, however, most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically. Many public universities have responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students — and replacing them with affluent students who can afford the tuition.

The situation is particularly demoralizing because it’s happening even as politicians from both parties spend more time trumpeting their supposedly deep concern for the American dream. Yet government policy is hurting, not fostering, many people’s chance to earn the most reliable ticket to a good job and a better life.

Leonardt doesn’t say so explicitly, but it is evident that the “government policy” he refers to is the extreme aversion either political party has to raising taxes. Some politicians will disingenuously claim that if they raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans those individuals will lower their donations to post-secondary institutions and that will have a deleterious effect on the endowments of colleges. But as Mr. Leonardt’s accompanying heart illustrates, the endowments to public colleges and universities, the post secondary schools whose presumed commitment is to lifting students out of poverty, are substantially lower than those of private colleges and universities. Moreover, affluent donors tend to come from and donate to their alma maters, which more often than not are already well endowed. Finally, those donations are often earmarked for a particular facility or college that the donor identifies… and it could just as easily be new tennis courts, a new student union building, or a spiffy new football stadium that hosts a half-dozen games a year.

And here the “stunning” consequence of not raising taxes to fund state colleges as described in Mr. Leonardt’s column? “It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.” He offers a series of charts to show the state-by-state cuts to colleges and universities and then offers these insights:

Since 2008, states’ per-student spending on higher education has fallen 18 percent nationwide, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The cuts have occurred in both blue and red states, with somewhat larger ones in Republican-run states. States made deep cuts after the financial crisis and have since failed to restore funding, choosing instead to cut taxes or spend money on health care, prisons or other areas.

“States are making it much more difficult for their residents to get high-quality higher education,” Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute said. “They are causing their institutions to charge more, to take more out of state students, to cut quality. It’s very shortsighted.” That’s exactly the right word, because spending on education often more than pays for itself in the long run.

The budget cuts affect every realm of higher education, with some of the biggest damage happening at community colleges and less selective four-year institutions. These campuses enroll the great majority of lower-income college students. Yet flagship public campuses — like those in Ann Arbor, Mich., Boulder, Colo., and Gainesville, Fla. — are important to upward mobility too, given the success of their graduates.

In the last few years, many flagships have begun to recruit more upper-income students from outside their state, including from overseas. Those students don’t qualify for in-state tuition or for much financial aid — and thus help bolster the colleges’ budgets.

Mr. Leonardt notes that college administrators do not describe their motives as being driven by budgets, though. Instead they talk about the need for more geographic diversity or, as he intimates, the need to “game” their standings in the US News and World Report rankings by going after students with the highest test scores possible.

At the very end of his column Mr. Leonardt suggests that the only ultimate fix is to spend more on public colleges, which, of course, requires more taxes… and it is easier to point the finger at “waste, fraud, and abuse”. He concludes with these paragraphs:

This country should also be investing more of its resources in education.

A century ago, it did precisely that, making high school universal and making possible the so-called American century. Today’s economy demands many more college graduates than the country currently has. Producing them won’t be free. But it will be worth it.

The alternative — which is the path we’re now on — is just about the worst economic-development strategy imaginable.

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