Today the new US News rankings came out. I’ve seen a few more people speak out regarding the dangers of reading too much into these rankings. I’ve been saying this years. So I am reposting my op-ed I wrote on September, 3, 2005 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR).
I am a relatively new college president. Coming into this position at Philander Smith College in December, I studied our place in higher education thoroughly and had many ideas about where we should be and how to get there. Of course, I consulted my trusty U.S. News & World Report guide to America’s “Best Colleges” for facts about our present situation, and guidance for improved status and position.
I realize now that I was Anakin Skywalker, and the best-colleges guide is the Dark Side of the Force. But instead of becoming a presidential Darth Vader, I have chosen to embrace the good in the Force and fight the Dark Side.
We completed information for the college guide. Days before the official release, e-mail messages came that instructed us not to issue any press releases prior to 12:01 a.m. EST on Friday, Aug. 19. We received confidential and embargoed PDF files with the 2006 rankings so we could begin our media campaigns that Thursday for Friday’s news.
Many anticipated these rankings, hoping that their standing had improved. A Top 50 public university? Maybe a Top 10 national liberal arts college? Campus media professionals began crafting those familiar phrases of excellence:
“We are attracting among the most academically talented undergraduates.”
“We continue to build on our tradition of academic excellence through quality programs and faculty [and] small class size.”
“We are especially gratified to be recognized for our efforts to make an excellent education accessible to students from families of limited means.” (From a school where tuition is in excess of $23,000 a year.)
My college is not in the top tier. It isn’t even in the third tier. We are solidly in the fourth tier-at the bottom again. So for the uninformed, we, along with all the other bottom-tier schools, are stigmatized when the top-tier schools stick out their chests and make noise about how great they are due to these rankings.
But the brutal truth is that “best colleges” have nothing to do with quality. They are a measurement of privilege. Schools with great resources mainly recruit privileged students with great grades and test scores. In general, the more privilege you bring into your institution, the better your rankings. There are exceptions to this rule, but if you really look at the rankings, they are a celebration of privilege.
My students do not have privilege, so we’re at the bottom. Research by Postsecondary Education Opportunity emphasizes the impact of privilege. In its report, “Pell Grant Shares of Undergraduate Enrollments in Leading Universities and 4-Year Colleges,” the state flagship universities in 2002 had less than 21 percent of their students who were Pell Grant-eligible, meaning in general from households earning less than $35,000 a year. The “50 best universities” ranks were made up of about 18 percent Pell-eligible students. Finally, the 50 “best liberal arts colleges” had only 13 percent of their students from Pell-eligible families. These three sectors all received a grade of F in terms of low-income equity because 30 percent of America’s undergraduates were Pell eligible that year.
From 1991 to 2002, all three of these sectors enrolled fewer Pell-eligible students. Why? I am glad you asked. Poor students, in general, have poor test scores, poor retention rates and poor graduation rates. The “Best Colleges” rankings reward them all: 20 percent for retention (freshman to sophomore, graduation rates) and 15 percent student selectivity (ACT/SAT, top 10 percent of class).
Oh, yeah, the other criteria are explicitly based on wealth: faculty resources (including salaries), financial resources (generous per-student spending) and alumni giving. The last 25 percent of the rankings are based on peer assessment and, well, if you have lots of money and lots of privileged students, you’re a great school, right?
A recent Democrat-Gazette printed all the rankings for Arkansas. I, of course, looked behind the numbers and found what I expected. In 2003, the schools with top-tier rankings averaged 29.7 percent Pell-eligible students, third tier schools averaged 35.7 percent and fourth-tier schools averaged 67.8 percent. For Arkansas, the average percentage of Pell-eligible students in four-year schools is 42.6 percent.
So I hold my head high, as should others in the fourth tier, as we have the most difficult job. If a student can’t pay for school and didn’t have money for test-prep courses, he’s more likely to drop out, which affects retention and graduation rates. Over 80 percent of my students are Pell-eligible (now the second most in the state), so we really have a chore ahead of us.
Just once it would be nice for us to not celebrate privilege and to begin to critically look at data that are presented. You just might find that those so-called fourth-tier schools serve the segment that actually looks like Arkansas.-
— — –• — — –-Walter M. Kimbrough, Ph.D., is president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock.