College Rankings Hinder Economic Equality

Despite widespread efforts to even the playing field, economic inequality looms large in America. Is there a solution? Access to higher education is often touted as the great economic equalizer; however, as it stands now, our system of higher education may do more to perpetuate inequality than to disrupt it.

A recent piece by Benjamin Wermund for Politico suggests that the college admissions process favors those from higher income families, reinforcing economic inequality. Even among the many universities that tout economic diversity, admissions statistics skew toward wealthier students. Wermund explains that Princeton University, along with other top schools, admits more students from families in the top one percent of earners than from families in the entire bottom 60 percent.

Why is there a disparity between colleges’ stated values and their actual admissions procedures? Some point to legacy admissions, while others suggest that fewer students from low-income backgrounds are applying. An alternate explanation is that, in college rankings, schools are indirectly rewarded for admitting more students from high-earning families.

The current structure of college rankings incentivizes outcomes rather than behaviors.

U.S. News & World Report—which produces one of the most popular lists of college rankings—includes SAT scores as one factor in it’s ranking. While standardized tests are assumed to reflect merit, studies demonstrate that family income substantially affects SAT scores, and that these effects are nearly twice as large for students who are black. As long as ranking systems heavily weight tests, schools will find it difficult to achieve their stated goal of equitable admission.

U.S. News & World Report uses seven categories (such as faculty resources and student selectivity) to rank colleges. Each category contains factors that incentivize accepting higher-income students. For instance, in addition to test scores, colleges are ranked based on their graduation and retention rates. Because of rising costs, low-income students are more likely to drop out of college, so colleges benefit from accepting students who can pay to stay and graduate. The rankings also include student selectivity; colleges increase this by accepting more early-decision applicants. This makes it more likely that schools will miss low-income applicants, because many apply during regular decision periods so that they can fully compare financial aid packages before they commit.

Universities’ positions in these rankings are important for their application rates each year, so, in order to achieve a higher ranking, schools may divert resources away from factors that are not reflected in the rankings. Even though these rankings are not necessarily aligned with universities’ values of diversity, many adopt the assessment criteria anyway to boost their prestige. One university president called this the “greatest inefficiency ranking in America.” In behavioral science, we refer to this as “you are what you measure.” When people are aware of the metrics on which they will be assessed, they change their behavior in order to fit these standards. Consider a teacher whose pay is tied to student performance. They are incentivized to teach to a standardized test. They might want to try new pedagogical methods but can’t risk a drop in scores. Similarly, universities that seek to promote diversity yet adhere to rankings that reward high status should not be surprised when they fail to live up to their values.

New criteria could not only shift the narrative around what factors are valued in colleges but also provide schools with concrete behaviors they can implement.

Changing the system of higher education to avoid the negative effects of inequality is both urgent and daunting. Since colleges clearly respond to rankings (to the point that some include rankings in their strategic plans), one opportunity is to change the way that we measure success and prestige among schools. The current structure of college rankings incentivizes outcomes rather than behaviors. This system encourages schools to achieve certain metrics without specifying the means to do so, creating ambiguity. For example, colleges are rewarded for having high graduation rates but are not explicitly evaluated on how they ensure retention and reduce dropout. Even college rankings that include measures of socioeconomic diversity, such as the Times Higher Education list, still do not assess schools on behaviors that promote this outcome.

Considering universities’ existing commitments to diversity, they would likely embrace new assessment strategies to better reflect these values. A behavioral ranking might include factors such as how much money schools offer students in need-based versus merit-based financial aid, or how many first-generation college students they accept. It might also focus on the resources colleges provide to help low-income students flourish, such as mentorship or work-study opportunities. These criteria not only shift the narrative around what factors are valued in colleges but also provide schools with concrete behaviors they can implement.

Inequality in higher education is deeply rooted and difficult to address. We can start by critiquing the assessment strategies that guide universities’ decisions. In order to do so, we must also develop a better understanding of how to help low-income students succeed in higher education. If the organizations that assemble rankings adopt more objective and behavioral measures of success, we might see the beginning of a shift toward equality in college attainment.