The New York Times is late to the game of college rankings, but the paper of record has entered with a splash. Before we get to their system, it’s useful to think about the rankings in the abstract. Maybe it seems obvious but the way an institution or a magazine ranks colleges is an expression of what the editors think is most valuable. U.S. News encourages students to consider some combination of prestigious research and classroom experience as their guide. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity asks students to consider starting salary after graduation. The Washington Monthly wants to measure schools by how many of their students go into service-oriented professions after graduation. The American Council For Trustees and Alumni looks at how many substantive courses across disciplines a student is required to take.
These are all perfectly legitimate measurements. And now the Times has decided to rank schools by how well they serve lower-income students. Looking at 100 selective institutions—schools whose graduation rate is at least 75%– the Times found that many wealthy schools were not doing well by students from poor families. As David Leonhardt writes, “Over the last decade, dozens of colleges have proclaimed that recruiting a more economically diverse student body was a top priority. Many of those colleges have not matched their words with actions.”
If, as the editors at the Times certainly hope, college is going to be the great equalizer, then colleges—especially the ones with large endowments—need to do more to attract students from lower income brackets. Leonhardt praises a few institutions: “Vassar has taken steps to hold down spending on faculty and staff. Amherst and the University of Florida have raised new money specifically to spend on financial aid for low-income students. American University reallocated scholarships from well-off students to needy ones. Grinnell set a floor on the share of every freshman class – 15 percent – whose parents didn’t go to college.”
Good for them, but they are not and never were the problem. The number of low-income students who are qualified to get into and equipped to finish Vassar is astonishingly low. Critics have pounced on the fact that the Times didn’t even bother to look at the vast majority of the schools (mostly public universities) where poor kids go to college. But that’s not part of the agenda, which is this: Rich institutions should be serving the poor better. Public universities are hardly even part of that calculation anymore: private institutions have far large endowments, their professors are paid more, the facilities are nicer, etc. From the standpoint of the Times, the elite private schools, not the state universities, are where students from poor families are supposed to go. As someone once paraphrased this point of view, it’s “Yale or jail.”
The assumption is that college is the great equalizer–if only we could get low-income kids to enter and complete college. But the problems of inequality start long before college and college is not going to do much to fix them. K-12 education is where the problem starts, and where it must be addressed. Students from well off families are being very well prepared for college level studies; students from poor families are not.
Even if we make do everything in our power to get poor kids into selective colleges, their chances of completion are much lower–not only because they’re unprepared academically but also because they lack the support system from families and peers that promote college completion. For example, a study by the American Enterprise Institute recently concluded that having a father in the home makes it more likely that a student will finish college. It is hard to see how we are going to help those students merely by enrolling them in an elite college or university.