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"Social Mobility" Joins the College Rankings

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Unless you were orbiting Jupiter this past week, you’ve probably seen a news story or two (or maybe 13) about the latest U.S. News college rankings that exploded into the usual public frenzy, as they do every year.

iBy the way, since my post today is more of a rant than advice, let me say up-front that the opinions expressed herein are exclusively my own and not necessarily those of College Confidential or anyone officially connected to CC. U.S. News should issue a trigger warning with their rankings. That’s another opinion of mine.


Pardon my cynicism. I’m an idealist by temperament and these, of the many different types of college rankings that appear every year, create an artificial reality that just rubs my idealism the wrong way. As I wrote in a recent post, I believe that we’re on the cusp of a genuine sea change in higher education. A number of previously ongoing college-related issues just aren’t holding water anymore.

One primary issue -- getting off topic for a moment -- is costJust today, I spied an article in The Atlantic: Why Is College in America So Expensive?, which notes:

Today, the US spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report, released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year — nearly twice as much as the average developed country...

In a previous post, I linked to an article that mentions some small colleges that have pointedly lowered their tuitions as a survival tactic. That may also appear as a clash of ideals and realities -- higher education’s ideal of quality education requiring increasing expense and the reality of “consumer” (students and families) unwillingness to pay the escalating freight.

Social Mobility Joins the Ranks

Back to U.S. News. This year, apparently in an effort to toss their rankings salad a bit more appetizingly, the editors decided to throw in a new judging criterion: “social mobility.” When I first heard about this, I was intrigued by that almost PC-sounding euphemism.

“Hmm. What is that?” I wondered. Well, for those of you who may also be puzzled by this phrase, allow me an attempt to explanation.

Going straight to the horse’s mouth (checking to see if U.S. News’ methodology has any bite), then, we see the editors’ rationale regarding social mobility (excerpted):

Social mobility: New this year, we factored a school's success at promoting social mobility by graduating students who received federal Pell Grants (those typically coming from households whose family incomes are less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000). See below the two measures that factor into social mobility.

Pell Grant graduation rates are weighted at 2.5 percent. This new ranking indicator measures the success of Pell Grant students on an absolute basis. To calculate this indicator, we use a school's six-year graduation rate among new fall 2011 entrants receiving Pell Grants. This assesses each school’s performance graduating students from low-income backgrounds. A higher Pell Grant graduation rate scores better than a lower one.

Pell Grant graduation rates compared with all other students are weighted at 2.5 percent. This additional new ranking factor compares each school's six-year graduation rate among Pell recipients who were new fall 2011 entrants graduating in 2017 with the six-year graduation rate among non-Pell recipients at the same school by dividing the former into the latter. …

… Scores for the new social mobility indicators were then adjusted by the proportion of the entering class that was awarded Pell Grants because achieving a higher low-income student graduation rate is more challenging with a larger proportion of low-income students. As a result of adding indicators for social mobility into the 2019 Best Colleges rankings, when combined with the graduation rate performance, U.S. News takes economic diversity into account in indicators that comprise 13 percent of the rankings. ...

Got that? My first reaction was, “Huh?” Let’s see how other sources have responded to this new methodological factor. How about Fortune? …

U.S. News & World Report's 2019 College Rankings Prioritize Economic Diversity. But the Results Barely Changed:

This year, to create the ranking of more than 1,800 colleges and universities, U.S. News considered indicators meant to measure social mobility and no longer considers acceptance rates, which boosted rankings of schools that turned the most students away.… [Then, an Fortunate (for us) stab at explaining the U.S. News social mobility metric:]

One of the formula’s new social mobility indicators considers the graduation rates of lower-income students who receive federal Pell Grants, and the other compares the graduation rates of Pell Grant students and non-Pell Grant students at the same school. Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News & World Report, told Politico 13 percent of a school’s rank now comes from economic diversity indicators, while student selectivity (including SAT and ACT test scores) has been decreased to 10 percent of the rank.

Speaking of Politico:

U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT REVAMPS RANKINGS: U.S. News & World Report is changing the formula for its widely read college rankings. The aim is to reward schools that enroll and graduate more students from low-income families. The new formula includes indicators meant to measure "social mobility" and drops an acceptance rate measure that benefited schools that turned the most students away.

— The change in methodology is reflected in the 2019 "best colleges" edition, out today. It's the first update to the rankings since POLITICO reported last year that they create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less well-to-do applicants. The rankings are so closely followed in the academic world that some colleges have built them into strategic plans.

— Still, the top of the U.S. News rankings doesn’t look that much different than in years past. Princeton and Harvard were No. 1 and No. 2. Third place was split among Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago and Yale....

It’s that middle Politico paragraph that rankles me the most, where it implies that U.S. News responded to its own criticism that the U.S. News rankings “create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less well-to-do applicants” plus (this is the real blood boiler for me) “The rankings are so closely followed in the academic world that some colleges have built them into strategic plans.”

Feel manipulated much? I’ve mentioned before what an old college professor friend of mine said about all things college: “Higher education. Best scam going.”

Idealism Vs. Reality

Once again, allow me to clarify: I am not anti-college. What I am, though, is adamantly anti-hucksterism. Idealism vs. reality. The ideal of higher education attracts me. The shameless marketing, manipulation and hypocrisy of the college world and the barnacles attached to its hull (rankings, for example) -- all for the sake of the almighty bottom line --  should be a loud gong ringing in the ears of high schoolers and their parents.

Sea change? There needs to be a ship-righting tsunamiJust to show the effect of the U.S. News rankings on one especially well-informed public, here are some reactions from College Confidential forum posters:

- Some pretty big moves this year, especially outside the top 30 or so.

- Bad year for Boston's Big three: Boston College fell six places to 38, Boston University fell five places to 42 and Northeastern fell four places to 44.

- U.S. News also dropped acceptance rate as a ranking indicator and reduced the weight of expert opinions, SAT/ACT scores and high school class standing.

- Changes in the ranking system decrease the utility of comparisons between this year and last except with regard to discussing the merits of the specific changed factors as reflected in a college's change in ranking. Changed factors mentioned in prior posts include dropping acceptance rate, reducing academic factors of test scores and high school rankings, and including graduation rate for Pell grant recipients. To what extent will these changes affect college admissions behavior? For example, is being a Pell grant recipient the new hook?

- USN&WR "rankings" are entirely meant to drive eyeballs to their content. The rankings, themselves, are meaningless. …

- It is my understanding that many of the rankings can include things that have nothing to do with quality of education, i.e., new buildings and facilities

- While it's nice that USNWR added some social factors to the rankings, it's not something that most are interested in when evaluating a university.

- Yep, but unfortunately using other ranking criteria that is important to students and families like selectivity, reputation, access to quality faculty, graduation rates, earning potential, etc. is just as important as a college that has low-income students. …

- Maybe Stanford’s lower USNWR ranking, along with more spots and not releasing acceptance rate data, will help increase acceptance rates and reduce applications.

That last comment referred to Stanford University’s decision not to publish its acceptance rates going forward. Check out comments about that on College Confidential's forum.

If I were a hardcore conspiracy theory advocate, I would raise my eyebrows about the timing of Stanford’s decision and U.S. News dropping acceptance rates as a ranking criterion. No raised eyebrows about that for me, though. There’s enough other objective evidence about the higher education industry to raise my hackles, not my eyebrows. See all the above.