Are U.S. News’ Rankings Inherently Biased Against Black Colleges?

Are U.S. News’ Rankings Inherently Biased Against Black Colleges?
By Margaret Kamara

The U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings have long had their share of critics, and Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of historically Black Philander Smith College, is trying to enlist his HBCU counterparts in boycotting the rankings.

Kimbrough says the magazine focuses on institutional resources, student selectivity and graduation rates to select the top institutions. But since many HBCUs struggle with these issues, he says the rankings in effect discourage students from going to those schools.

“If there are people looking at the rankings as a measurement of the quality of an institution, they think [HBCUs] do not have any type of qualities,” says Kimbrough. “[The rankings] do not tell you who the best schools are, just the most privileged.”

This is why Kimbrough, who opposes all college rankings, recently joined forces with the Educational Conservancy in a letter campaign to college leaders urging them to stop completing a peer assessment U.S. News relies on and to stop using their schools’ rankings in promotional materials.

The Educational Conservancy is a nonprofit group working to end commercial interference in college admissions. The organization has also campaigned to end early admissions programs, which some argue are unfair to minority and low-income students. As of press time, 28 other presidents had joined the boycott campaign.

Lloyd Thacker, author of College Unranked and CEO of the Educational Conservancy, says that he is very pleased by the prospects of HBCU presidents aligning their institutions with the campaign, which he says goes beyond the rankings issue.

“Over the 29 years that I have worked in education, I have watched college admissions be influenced by billion-dollar college consultant industries that have transformed education into products, students into consumers and colleges into businesses,” he says.

Howard University was the only HBCU in the Top 100 list this year. Other HBCUs were listed in the fourth tier of schools.

“Historically Black colleges and universities have a history of graduating students who might not contribute high inputs which create high rankings,” said Kimbrough in a letter being distributed to the 120 HBCUs that make up the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. “Yet the current systems in place give us little to no credit for this tremendous work.”

Among other concerns, the Education Conservancy says the rankings “imply a false precision and authority that is not warranted by the data they use; obscure important differences in educational mission in aligning institutions on a single scale; and encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship in institutions’ pursuing improved rankings.”  

Besides the peer assessment, U.S. News relies on public data, available via the federal government and institutions’ Web sites.

“We are journalists, we gather factual information,” says Cynthia Powell, the magazine’s director of public relations. “Just as reporters cover Capitol Hill, we will cover the higher education arena. If reporters can’t get information from one source, we will go to another.”

However, U.S. News is experiencing a decline in university cooperation in recent years. This year, 58 percent of the 4,089 presidents, provosts and deans of admissions responded to the peer assessment, which is the most heavily weighted criteria in the rankings.

The highest overall peer assessment rate the magazine has received for a single edition was 68 percent in 2000; the lowest was 57 percent in 2006.

Dr. Jillian Kinzie, associate director for postsecondary research at the National Survey of Student Engagement, says there are more important factors for evaluating colleges. “Our research shows that students who attend HBCUs are more engaged with their faculty, community and giving back, not necessarily in monetary ways but deeper investments, and I haven’t seen that in the rankings.”

J.J. Pryor, a spokesman for Howard, says the university doesn’t plan to join the boycott, but “The university does recommend that the ranking activity become the subject of a more structured dialogue involving academicians and journalists as a prelude to changes that might be required.”

Dr. James T. Minor, an assistant professor of higher education at Michigan State University, agrees that HBCUs should work with U.S. News to improve the selection criteria. The publication should also make an effort to better understand the contributions of HBCUs, such as sending an evaluation team to the campuses to speak to students, faculty and explore the campuses for themselves.

U.S. News, Minor says, “has an enormous responsibility to communicate the value that differentiates colleges and the need for them.”

–Margaret Kamara

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