Four Ways U.S. News & World Report Rankings Hurt Diversity

unswr

The U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of colleges is so popular that it outlived the print magazine that spawned it. Yet it’s so reviled in the world of higher education that countless college presidents have taken pen in hand to decry its outsized influence and alleged arbitrary results.

Critics of the USN&WR rankings say they hurt diversity, in several different ways:

1. Ignoring it. The recipe USN&WR uses to come up with its rankings has been tweaked over the years, but editors say it is always “based on our researched view of what matters in education.” That has never included diversity, which the erstwhile magazine looks at in a separate ranking. So diverse schools get no bump by being more inclusive.

2. What’s your score? Test scores fall under Student Selectivity. Since the average minority student tends to have lower ACT and SAT scores, it is easy to see how schools that trade student diversity for higher numbers tend to move up in the U.S. News ranks, while schools that refuse to sacrifice diversity pay a big price for pursuing what most educators agree is best for all students.

3. Money, money, money. It’s a relatively small factor — 5 percent of the score — but the Alumni Giving Rate can give an important bump to elite schools with a bigger percentage of economically-advantaged students graduates.

4. Retention and graduation. Underrepresented student populations tend to have lower rates of retention and graduation. And it is in this area that U.S. News particularly dings diverse colleges. Taken together, retention and graduation rates represent 30 percent of the ranking criteria. The publication has taken steps to address this problem. Last year the publication adopted a performance indicator for graduation (7.5 percent of the score), which predicts anticipated graduation rates based on student characteristics and then rates the college on how it performs compared with the prediction.  Whether admissions professionals are aware of this change, however, is unknown, since the use of the predicted results is listed only in the methodology section of the report, while the category label of Graduation Rate is more prominently displayed.

Although these criticisms exist, they seem to have hardly deterred the imitators. College rankings are now a cottage industry, and many national magazines have entered the fray — ForbesMoney Magazine, and Time, to name a few. Websites have sprouted up so prospective college students can slice and dice the best schools.

The New York Times is the latest entrant in the rankings game.

In September, The Times ranked colleges by economic diversity of their student bodies, something that USN&WR doesn’t tackle. The Times, too, had its critics. Its College Access Index looked only at schools where four-year graduation rates were 75 percent or higher. That eliminated about 2,800 of the nation’s 2,900 four-year institutions.

The remaining schools were almost exclusively small, private, elite colleges. No HBCUs. Few diverse public institutions. Instead, The Times told its readers that Vassar leads the nation in economic diversity. Despite Vassar’s reputation for excellence, with African American enrollment at 7.5 percent, its title of diversity leader is questionable.

And rankings will become even bigger next year when the federal government comes out with its new ratings system, which the administration differentiates from rankings. The federal scorecard is being promoted as an antidote to the rankings system by placing an emphasis on access, affordability, and graduation rates, instead of selectivity and wealth.

The federal scorecard has been criticized by many in higher education, including the American Association of Community Colleges, which called on the administration to do more than post scores.

“The administration and other policymakers need to focus on implementing mechanisms that will provide the needed advising, counseling, and technological tools that will help future students make the right choice about the college and program that best suits them. A robust website, however essential, does not get the job done.”

The bottom line is that ratings and rankings are just one way that a school needs to “sell” itself — and the implications of both are real.●