Home > Uncategorized > Politico Report Finds that Metrics Matter… and US News and World Report’s Metrics for Colleges Are Increasing Inequality

Politico Report Finds that Metrics Matter… and US News and World Report’s Metrics for Colleges Are Increasing Inequality

We are approaching the time when US News and World Report issues its annual analysis of colleges, a report that was launched in 1983 and became, in the magazine’s own words from a 2008 article , “the 800-pound gorilla” of higher education. Politico writer Benjamin Wermund concurs with that assessment, and in his story issued on Sunday asserts that the 800 pound gorilla has undercut social mobility in our country and offers evidence from a new “report card” to support his contention. He opens his essay with this:

America’s universities are getting two report cards this year. The first, from the Equality of Opportunity Project, brought the shocking revelation that many top universities, including Princeton and Yale, admit more students from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent combined. The second, from U.S. News and World Report, is due on Tuesday — with Princeton and Yale among the contenders for the top spot in the annual rankings.

The two are related: A POLITICO review shows that the criteria used in the U.S. News rankings — a measure so closely followed in the academic world that some colleges have built them into strategic plans — create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants.

As I’ve written on several occasions (see here, here, and here for examples), the US News and World Report’s annual report card is too reliant on test data, has contributed to a horse race mentality among colleges, contributed to the extreme competition that infects affluent high schools, and, most insidiously, reinforces the notion that microscopic differences in algorithmic “scores” reflect qualitative differences in schools.

Mr. Wermund uses hard data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, to demonstrate that the US News and World Report does something even worse: it closes doors of opportunity to individuals in families with low incomes. Mr. Wermund notes that the US News and World Report’s metrics include several components that favor students from affluent schools:

  • student performance (i.e.evidence that their acceptance pool has “the best and brightest” as measured by standardized tests and GPAs)
  • lower acceptance rates (i.e evidence of their “competitiveness”)
  • performing well on surveys completed by guidance counselors (which favors affluent high schools with robust college counseling staff), and
  • alumni giving (which compels colleges to draw from affluent applicants)

At the same time, the US News and World Report ignores economic diversity, a measure that would encourage schools to accept more children from less affluent households. And Mr. Wermund digs deeper into the impact of the US News and World Report’s annual report card by interviewing several past and present college presidents. Their reactions were astonishing, with one, Brit Kiran of the University of Maryland, offering a particularly scathing indictment:

Kirwan cast the problem in simpler terms, saying that U.S. News creates the false impression that schools with the wealthiest students are, based on their criteria, the best.

“If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Wermund suggests that this emphasis has had a major impact on politics as well:

“Elite colleges are part of the apparatus that produces Trumpism and produces working class, white resentment,” said Walter Benn Michaels, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It fits perfectly into Trump’s narrative … Basically, if you’re a low-income or working-class white student who works hard and you find out that what matters in admissions is who your daddy is, or what your race is, you’re completely left out,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “When a politician like Donald Trump comes along and says the system is rigged, you’re very likely to believe that. In this case, it is rigged — against those students.”

So… what is to be done? The disheartening news is: “Not much”. Donald Trump and the most conservative members of the Senate want to compel colleges to spend more of their endowments or possibly lose their non-profit status, which might compel them to use their endowments to underwrite scholarships for more children raised in poverty. President Obama suggested developing a Federal metric for colleges that would report on the incomes earned by graduates, an idea that would effectively reward colleges offering degrees in science and technology while penalizing colleges that offer degrees in teaching and social work. But one thing is clear, and Mr. Wermund notes at the end of his article: US News and World Report won’t be making changes any time soon:

Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, said he met with U.S. News officials and raised concerns that the rankings incentivize schools to spend more money when the cost of college is already skyrocketing.

“The question I asked was, ‘Doesn’t this seem to run counter to what’s really in the public’s interest?’” he recalled.

“The answer was, ‘Yes, we know it — but we don’t care.’”

Morse, of U.S. News, denied that, saying, “We do meet regularly with college presidents and admissions deans and we’re definitely aware of what’s written about U.S. News.”

To many presidents, though, prodding U.S. News to change feels like a lost cause.

Said Rosenberg, “It feels a little bit like shaking your fist at the gods — there’s nothing I can do about it.”

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