U.S. News and World Report issued its latest college rankings Tuesday, a consumer-style shopping guide many parents and students depend on when making higher education decisions.
For the seventh year in a row, Princeton University took the top spot on the best national universities list. Harvard University came second, the University of Chicago and Yale University tied for third, and Columbia, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tied for fifth place. Williams College ranked top of the national liberal arts colleges list, with Amherst, Bowdoin, Swathmore, and Wellesley rounding out the top five. But if parents can’t afford to spend more than $45,000 per year on tuition and fees, students need to look a little farther down those lists.
And that’s a huge problem that ultimately contributes to the country’s economic inequality, critics of the ranking system say.
According to a scathing Politico story published Monday, the U.S. News and World Report rankings push schools to cater to wealthy students, and not just with sky-high tuition costs. The rankings reward metrics like student performance on standardized tests, lower acceptance rates, and alumni giving. Students from wealthier families do better on standardized tests, have more help navigating the application process, and are more likely to have parents that can afford to give to their alma mater, boosting their offspring’s admissions chances. More than 40 percent of Harvard’s class of 2021 had family members who attended the university.
The overall preference for students from wealthier families means that fewer poor students have access to higher education and, by extension, the American dream, critics say. Some even blame higher education elitism for President Donald Trump’s election.
“It fits perfectly into Trump’s narrative. … Basically, if you’re a low-income or working-class white student who works hard and you find out that what matters in admissions is who your daddy is, or what your race is, you’re completely left out,” Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told Politico. “When a politician like Donald Trump comes along and says the system is rigged, you’re very likely to believe that. In this case, it is rigged—against those students.”
Politico cited one report that found students from families among the top quartile of income-earners account for 72 percent of enrollment at the most competitive colleges and universities. Current and former college presidents told Politico the U.S. News and World Report rankings have become so influential that many colleges strategically allocate resources to boost their scores in certain metrics, including increasing faculty salaries and offering scholarships for students with high test scores, regardless of financial need. One former university chancellor noted those metrics discourage frugality because if schools spend less, even if it’s for the same quality professors and students, they can drop in the rankings. And more spending means higher tuition.
The Politico analysis likely will provide ammunition to those who advocate for free tuition at public universities, a plan with its own unintended negative consequences. But many conservatives note a college degree isn’t the only way to achieve the American dream. In fact, it’s often the best way to impede that quest, especially for students who graduate with gobs of student loan debt. Other free market advocates note “rich kids” help subsidize tuition for those who can’t afford list price.
No matter what critics say, parents and students will continue to rely on U.S. News and World Report until someone comes up with a better ranking system. A little healthy competition would benefit everyone, rich and poor.