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Campbell’s Law Confirmed as Public Colleges Chase High US News and World Report Ratings

November 1, 2018

As noted repeatedly in this blog, what gets measured is a crucial element in what gets done, and, as  the use of flawed metric has had a devastating impact on the availability of affordable colleges. In “Undermining Pell, Volume IV“, New America researcher Steven Burd explains how a combination of reductions in State funding and the U.S,News and World Report’s ranking systems have diminished the opportunities for children raised in poverty to attend college, thereby undercutting the opportunities for them to achieve middle class earnings.

Mr. Burd opens the report describing how the state of Maine’s repeated budget cuts compelled it’s flagship college to seek out of state students by offering them scholarships. In doing so, the college attracted more out of state students, but it also witnessed a plunge in the number of “Pell grant” students, that is students who qualify for federal subsidies due to the low income of their parents. This, in turn, meant that fewer children raised in poverty were able to attend the State subsidized colleges, which often serve as the best opportunity for advancement.

Later in the report, he highlights how the US News and World Report’s ratings impact college admissions, with colleges offering more “merit” scholarships that effectively balloons the number of affluent students at the expense of low income students. The result: greater inequality of opportunity. As Mr. Burd writes in one of the concluding sections of the report:

To be sure, a significant number of public colleges and universities are staying true to their mission by keeping their prices low and/or providing generous amounts of need-based aid to the substantial number of low-income students they enroll. These schools are run by leaders like Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers University at Newark, and Matthew Holland, the former president of Utah Valley University, who believe that public institutions should value inclusiveness over exclusivity.

But, unfortunately, for every Rutgers-Newark and Utah Valley, there are more public universities like Temple University that have lost track of their historic mission while worshipping at the altar of the U.S. News rankings and pursuing greater prestige. Many of these schools spend tens of millions of dollars lavishing scholarships on upper-middle income, mostly white students from the suburbs or other states, while students with the most financial need are charged a hefty price…

Mr. Burd offers several ways college aid could be transformed to reverse this trend before concluding with this call for policy makers and politicians to make colleges more affordable to low income Americans:

Regardless of which approach policymakers take, it is absolutely vital they act to put the brakes on the merit-aid arms race, which has done great harm to the college aspirations of low-income and working-class students.

For the good of the country, we must do all we can to ensure that colleges live up to their commitments to serve as engines of opportunity, rather than as perpetuators of inequality.

Will it happen? Unless States are willing to spend more for higher education and colleges are willing to ignore the bogus ratings system set up to “rank” them it won’t.

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