The Role Rankings Play in Colleges’ Efforts to Recruit and Graduate Low-Income Students
In a country where “We’re number one!” may be the proudest boast of all, rankings matter. For students and parents looking for the best possible college or university, where a school stands compared with its peers can make an indelible, decisive impression.
But knowing how much credence to give any school’s rank can depend on how the scores are compiled and what factors are considered. U.S. News & World Report’s annual college list, which has historically placed the most weight on academics, has become the gold standard in this regard. However, the company recently updated its criteria to place more emphasis on the recruitment of low-income, first-generation, and underserved students.
The change made a big difference for some schools, including Howard University, which rose 21 spots to 89th on the national universities list, and the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), whose ranking went up 11 places to tie for 70th.
Wayne A.I. Frederick, MD, president of Howard, notes that his school had been on a steady upward trend even before U.S. News increased its focus on social mobility. He called the change commendable and added that the university puts a lot of effort into making sure that the low-income students it recruits are able to succeed once they arrive on its Washington, D.C., campus.
To determine the extent of a school’s focus on social mobility, U.S. News uses Pell Grants as a barometer. Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) has placed a lot of emphasis on attracting Pell Grant students in recent years, and Provost Holden Thorp, PhD, says it has also created more programs aimed at ensuring student success. Improving in the U.S. News rankings is just an added plus, he notes.
“A lot of people think U.S. News shouldn’t be able to have such a big impact,” he says, “but it does. College administrators like to pick at the methodology, but the reality is that everybody looks at it. I think families look at it very, very carefully, so therefore, we look at it carefully.”
For its latest list, released in September, U.S. News added two indicators designed to recognize schools that succeed in recruiting and then graduating students from low-income families. Robert Morse, the magazine’s chief data strategist, develops the ranking surveys. He says the first factor measures how well a college helps low-income students earn a degree; the second compares support for these individuals with support for the school’s other students.
For both indicators, the magazine adjusts scores to account for schools that enroll higher proportions of low-income students, according to Morse’s blog, Morse Code, on U.S. News’ website. Morse says the company had already been collecting and publishing data on graduation rates based on a student’s family income. He adds, however, that a new “government mandate assisted in improving response rates to the U.S. News survey questions for analytical [purposes].”
Because Pell Grants are primarily awarded to students whose household income totals less than $40,000 a year, this was considered a good indicator of social mobility. To make sure that schools that recruit such students follow through in providing them the support they need to succeed, U.S. News added the second factor that looks at their graduation rates.
As a result, Morse says, 13 percent of the most recent ratings take into account factors such as social mobility and graduation rate. “Together,” he says, “these measures ensure that the rankings reward schools that succeed in enrolling and graduating students from low-income families.”
To Michelle Whittingham, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at UCSC, these twin measurements make sense. In her position, she concentrates on not just the students who come to campus but also the graduates who leave and the learning they take with them.
“It’s looking at the value that you add,” she says. “In my 25-year career in higher education, I think I get the most satisfaction out of watching the transformation of students, families, and communities.”
“Some of the best recruitment you can have is happy and successful alums,” she adds. “We don’t just recruit students; we focus on recruiting future alums.”
And while the university doesn’t spend a lot of time focused on the rankings, it does pay attention, says Whittingham. “We monitor the rankings, and we’re certainly aware of what they are,” she says. “We like to be going in the right direction.”
At WashU, recruitment of low-income students took on new urgency in 2014 when The New York Times singled it out as enrolling a small number of Pell Grant recipients — specifically, just 6 percent of its incoming freshman class. Thorp says that number is now up to 14 percent; however, during that time period, the university’s U.S. News ranking on the national universities list dropped to 19 from 14.
Thorp emphasizes that recruitment of low-income students is just the first step for WashU. Its Deneb STARS (Sustaining Talented Academically Recognized Students) program — named for the farthest star visible to the naked eye — helps the university see students through to graduation.
Beginning with a summer orientation and continuing with regular meetings and programming, STARS helps students find their way and make it to the finish line.
“Before we started that program, we would get reports from low-income students that they didn’t have the kind of experience here that they deserve,” Thorp says. “There are a lot of things they need to overcome to succeed here.”
Beyond improving academic outcomes, STARS promotes social connections among these students, which also helps foster their success. Things like group T-shirts help them bond with each other and carve out an identity on campus.
“I think a lot of low-income students felt kind of sheepish about letting people know they were the first in their families to go to college,” Thorp explains. “Now they let people know, and they should be proud of that fact.”
At Howard, Frederick says that although officials keep an eye on the U.S. News rankings, the university’s emphasis needs to remain on what’s happening on campus. “No ranking system will be perfect,” he says. “What I focus my team and strategy on is [ensuring] positive student outcomes.”
But, according to Thorp, a rise in the rankings can’t hurt; thus, helping low-income students succeed can be a positive step in more ways than one. “That is going to have a big impact,” Thorp says. “Schools want to move up that list.”●
Dale Singer is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our January/February 2019 issue.