Categories: Economic News

Harvard’s failures in these university rankings

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Last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona criticized university ranking systems that emphasized high selectivity in admissions, telling a summit on excellence and equity in higher education:

[M]any institution spends a lot of time and money chasing classifications that they think are prestigious, but in reality, “do little more than “Xerox privilege,” as one HBCU president puts it.

There is a whole science behind climbing the rankings. It goes like this: compete for the wealthiest students by luring them with generous aid, because the best-prepared students have the best SAT scores and graduate on time; curry favor with your peers at other elite schools with expensive dinners and lavish events, because their opinions carry weight in the polls; and invest in the most amazing campus experiences money can buy, so the more graduates become donors, the more points you get!

Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that really matter: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for ALL Americans. This ranking system is a joke!

He didn’t mention the annual US News & World Report college rankings, but he didn’t have to; these famous rankings repeatedly reward top-ranked Ivy League-plus schools using a methodology that rewards large endowments and resources that most schools lack.

In 2018, US News changed the way it calculates its rankings, dropping data on admissions rates, which focused attention on the most selective schools, and focusing on low-income students. But the top results didn’t change much; Princeton University has been ranked No. 1 in the nation’s university rankings for nearly a dozen years.

US News changed the way it ranks colleges. It’s still ridiculous.

Other organizations have come up with different ways to rank colleges, and this post is about how Third Way, a Washington-based think tank, does it: defining a college’s value based on the proportion of lower-income students that enrolls and of the economy. benefit it provides them.

This piece was written by Michael Itzkowitz, Senior Fellow at Third Way. He also served as director of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard during the Obama administration.

These are statements you don’t hear often: Harvard is a fourth-tier institution. In fact, it ranks 847 out of 1,320 baccalaureate degree-granting institutions in the United States.

But if you measure colleges by the financial mobility they offer, rather than exclusivity and test scores, they’re perfect.

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 really 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 guess you can guess the conclusion I came to. But if the purpose of higher education is to raise the next generation and leave it better, rather than reproducing class divisions that already exist, how do we measure that effectively?

In 2020, Third Way and I introduced a concept known as the Price-to-Earnings Premium, which looks at how much students actually pay out-of-pocket relative to the “increase” in earnings they get from attending a specific institution. This allows prospective students to estimate how long it will take to recoup the cost of earning a degree. Then, I looked at this premium specifically for low-income students.

As I crunched the numbers, I sat excitedly waiting for the results to appear. But the data surprised me. The schools that came out on top? Duke, Stanford, William & Mary, Harvard and Yale universities. The institutions where low-income students received the best return on investment basically mimicked the annual US News and World Report ranking.

But one thing stood out from all of these schools at the top of the list: Each of them enrolls fewer than one in five students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds. If you’re one of the lucky few to be admitted, you’ll likely get a huge return on your investment. However, most people’s chances of being admitted are extremely limited. And if you’re accepted, you’re likely to be successful no matter where you apply.

This was not what I was looking for, but it did lead me to create a new way of rating 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, plus the profit economic they receive.

Combining these two results provides a better indication of the universities that are truly delivering on the promise of the higher education system as a whole: schools that are opening the door to a degree and moving students up the socioeconomic ladder.

Use of race in college admissions protected by First Amendment, groups say

The result? The schools that top the U.S. News list—Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, for example—fall to Nos. 426, 847, and 495, respectively, in terms of the financial mobility they offer.

Instead, schools like 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 institutions. And historically black colleges and universities, which are chronically underfunded and often 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 media and college ranking publications give them no recognition.

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 the students who enroll, the media should prioritize institutions that provide opportunities and leave the most students in better condition than where they started.

Schools like Harvard might not like that. But if the goal of higher education is to move students up the socioeconomic ladder, Harvard is simply a fourth-tier institution.

You can see more of the rankings here.


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