It’s college acceptance season, with all the accompanying emotional highs and lows swirling in households across the country. I, too, am feeling the swirl, for different reasons. As this year’s applicants and families make a decision, I am at my wits’ end about how to address a persistent problem: outsized attention devoted to so-called “best” or “top” colleges and universities.
The top 25 universities in one popular ranking serve only 1% of the undergraduate students enrolled in the more than 4,000 postsecondary institutions. And yet Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia received more mentions in The New York Times and The Washington Post than all 1,043 U.S. community colleges combined. For the record, the “top four” institutions serve approximately 77,500 students combined. Community colleges serve 6.2 million. Are the students selected to attend Ivy League schools 100 times more worthy and special, 100 times more important to the future health of our country and its people?
As another example, Princeton University announced that it would be tuition-free for families whose incomes are less than $100,000. Several other institutions, including my alma mater Williams College, have made similar commitments. Why be upset about this when my career is dedicated to ensuring that students, especially women and other marginalized groups, have access to an excellent liberal arts education?
Yet at about the same time, my institution, Hollins University, began the HOPE scholarship program. HOPE offers students within a 40-mile radius an opportunity to attend Hollins tuition-free for four years. In effect, they can receive a free liberal arts education and all the resources and opportunities it provides. Similarly, Mary Baldwin University announced Access MBU, a program that provides free tuition for families that make less than $60,000. The Simpson Promise does the same for Iowa families. The list goes on, but have you heard of HOPE, Access MBU, or the Simpson Promise? Many other institutions, too, have worked diligently to leverage limited resources to become more accessible.
When Princeton announced its wonderful change in policy to support lower-income families, it made the front pages of three global newspapers and magazines and was reported in countless others. I am thrilled for the people who are able to take advantage of the opportunity. However, Princeton had a $37 billion endowment at the time. They and other wealth institutions should have made this move much, much sooner. My university’s endowment is .0059 of Princeton’s; by any relative measure, our efforts and those colleges with even more limited resources than Hollins require significantly higher commitment and risk.
Am I upset that we didn’t get press? Sure. But I genuinely believe the issue is more significant than that.
A friend and colleague who shares my outrage suggested that perhaps the lack of attention is a consequence of the credence goods economic theory. This means that because the inner workings of higher education are opaque, families and students are left to evaluate our merit based only on brand and “expert” rankings. I fear this theory is sadly accurate, and that is problematic for a few reasons. First, popular rankings look at input categories with little attention paid to the outcomes. For example, these rankings deem the exclusion of students (low acceptance rates) as valuable. Further, those inputs are largely financially driven – they are heavily weighted toward the wealthiest institutions. Rankings would be much more helpful if they prioritized how institutions effectively and ethically utilize the resources they do have. Plus, some rankings are easily manipulated.
There’s another challenging element. As likely as those applicants and families are making decisions based on credence goods theory, those schools are making a similar assessment about whom they will admit. The “top” institutions are likely focused on those students who have great “expert” rankings (test scores, high school quality) and bring with them a good brand.
However, most institutions must go beyond the brand to build a class. The "best" institutions are rewarded for taking minimal risks with whom they admit. Higher selectivity, higher barriers to entry, begets higher retention and graduation, begets higher rankings. It's a virtuous – and vicious – circle of exclusivity and elitism. I am proud to have been affiliated with institutions that take a chance on young people whom the “top four” would not offer a second glance: students who have full-time jobs supporting families while also going to school; students who have succeeded as well as they can despite a dearth of resources; students whose college readiness may not be as fully formed, which means we must invest as much on supporting their well-being and academic success during college as we do on admitting them.
The consequences of adherence to popular rankings and the persistent visibility gap beyond a certain set of institutions are significant. I see the stress high school students experience when they are in the college application process. With the declining mental health of young people, let’s not add stress by pretending there are only two dozen excellent schools and the future is ruined if they don’t get in to one of them.
Dr. Mary Dana Hinton is president of Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.