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Higher Education, College Rankings

Higher Education, College Rankings
And Access for Lower-Income StudentsBy Dr. James T. Harris III

The 20th century has been called the American Century, and one of its leitmotifs was the great leap forward for millions of Americans from poverty into the middle class. In the 1960s and 1970s, the implementation of the Higher Education Act and Pell Grants allowed large numbers of students from low-income families to enter college. In addition, the GI Bill opened wide the doors of higher education to a host of veterans who otherwise would never have been able to consider a college education.

This increasing democratization in access to higher education has made us a richer nation. Now, however, our nation sees the gap between rich and poor grow even wider while the entry to higher education threatens to grow narrower. What accounts for this slowly closing door? Not public policy, but universities themselves as they seek to increase their rank among colleges in popular magazines.

The rankings we see in magazines place too much emphasis on selective admissions and not enough on a university’s relative success in graduating students most in need. Recent articles in the press have described the small number of low-income students at the nation’s most prestigious colleges, the same colleges that generally enjoy the highest rankings. If you think this is a coincidence, think again. It’s a little too systematic. Rankings are based on a number of factors, including six-year graduation rate performance. What then are the incentives for a university to admit students who are typically less prepared, have higher unmet financial need and require additional services to graduate?

What many people might not realize is that it is possible to predict what percentage of students will graduate within a six-year period by looking at their family income. The statistics on the impact of family socio-economic status on educational attainment are downright startling. According to a U.S. Department of Education report, 41 percent of students from the highest socio-economic quartile will receive a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering college. For students from the lowest socio-economic quartile the percentage graduating in the same time frame is 6 percent. In other words, a student from the highest socio-economic quartile is six times more likely to graduate than a student from the lowest.

What does this have to do with college rankings? There are few if any incentives for colleges and universities to take risks on students who most need help because those students are unlikely to improve the institution’s relative standing in the higher education community. Students from the lowest socio-economic quartile are less likely to graduate for a number of reasons. Colleges and universities can provide institutional financial aid, counseling and personal tutoring, but all of these services cost money and require additional resources.

As a college president, I see the impact of admitting students who depress the graduation rate at my own university. Like many colleges, Widener has programs for students with academic concerns. One special program, called Project Prepare, is designed specifically for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and boasts many success stories.

The ranking of colleges and universities has become a big business. I fear that it may erode our nation’s historic commitment to increasing access to higher education. It’s time that we thought up a new system of evaluating colleges and universities, one that places at least equal if not more weight on helping students succeed. Our institutions of higher learning must not give in to the temptation to look good in rankings at the cost of abandoning a whole generation of needy students.

— Harris is the president of Widener University in Chester, Pa.

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