Despite the recent changes to U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, the list of universities proclaiming they want no part of the rankings reads like a “Who’s Who” of American higher education. Yale, Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania are among those that have announced they will no longer share data for the magazine’s rankings.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who called college rankings a “joke,” urges other institutions to stop worshiping at this “false altar.” U.S. News responded by adjusting its law school rankings to accommodate some criticism. And in May, the publication announced that it would drop several items from its formula for ranking undergraduate programs.
But no one seriously expects this tinkering to change the results significantly. When U.S. News published its latest law school rankings, Yale was again the top-ranked institution. When its next undergraduate rankings come out, expect the same name-brand universities to dominate the charts despite the wishes of the institutions—and regardless of how good they actually are.
The latest debate obscures a much larger issue: Traditional college rankings provide false benchmarks because they measure the wrong things. Worse, they penalize the vast majority of regional public institutions that do the difficult work of supporting first-generation and underrepresented students who are pursuing a college education to improve themselves, their families and their communities. Rather than reinforcing institutional prestige, college rankings should celebrate the institutions that create lasting generational change through social and economic mobility.
Rankings per se are not harmful. Rankings done right can help prospective students and families sort through the nation’s nearly 6,000 postsecondary institutions that serve multitudes of learners in vastly different ways. But the majority of most mainstream college rankings give a privileged position to wealthy, selective and prestigious institutions, which then drives applicant and donor interest. U.S. News deserves a sliver of credit for recently introducing graduation rates of low-income students into its undergraduate ranking system. But despite its latest adjustments, its formula relies too heavily on inputs—data such as test scores of incoming students, student-faculty ratios and faculty salaries.
A more accurate and useful measure of U.S. colleges and universities would be to gauge their effectiveness at moving students up the economic ladder regardless of resources. A 2017 study by five prominent economists on colleges’ role in intergenerational mobility was groundbreaking. It revealed that the institutions that did the best job of moving large numbers of students up the socioeconomic ladder were regional public colleges and universities that serve first-generation and low-income college students—schools such as Texas A&M International in Laredo, Lehman College in New York City and California State University, Los Angeles.
A later study by higher education researcher Jorge Klor de Alva measured the impact of regional public institutions. It concluded that more than half of the low-income students enrolled at these colleges had reached the middle class or beyond by the time they hit their early 30s.
Fortunately, some college rankings are doing the long-overdue work of capturing upward mobility. The think tank Third Way has published an economic mobility index that ranks colleges by how quickly—and how many—low-income students recoup their educational investment by moving into family-sustaining careers. Interestingly, the top 10 schools that offer the most economic mobility are regional public universities.
The Postsecondary Value Commission created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to measure economic outcomes produced a compelling framework to determine if college graduates are better off—and by how much. This yardstick also measures economic and non-economic returns, such as personal growth and development, acquisition of skills and improved well-being, which are crucially important for students and society but aren’t usually captured by best-colleges lists.
And the Carnegie Classification, which categorizes all of the nation’s postsecondary institutions based on their size, enrollment, and campus setting, has announced plans to produce a comprehensive new list of colleges that do the best at moving their students upward.
These data show that millions of students are prospering in college despite all their life challenges. Yet the institutions that serve them get only faint praise, if they’re praised at all—and never on widely-read college rankings. The conversation around college quality must center not on graduating students who enter college with all the advantages but on propelling students into new careers and better lives.
The institutions that do the best job of lifting graduates and their families for generations should be widely hailed as the best. The best-known college rankings must be reinvented to reflect this imperative.