Rankings Aren’t Enough
Kudos to The New York Times for drawing more attention to the collegiate success of low-income students by ranking colleges based on their enrollment of Pell Grant recipients and net price for low- and middle-income students.
We only wish their rankings were more comprehensive, so they could shine a brighter light on problems faced by our nation’s students with the greatest financial need.
Because The New York Times decided to only look at colleges with four-year graduation rates greater than 75 percent, less than 100 institutions (out of more than 2,000 across the country) are included in its analysis. This means that the rankings overlook the large majority of students enrolled in four-year colleges. (The graduation rate for the majority of institutions falls well below 75 percent, as illustrated below.)
This also means that the rankings only capture a tiny number of undergraduates enrolled in four-year colleges who receive Pell Grants (just 1.6 percent!), leaving out more than 4.2 million students. This distorts the picture of low-income enrollment, and it distracts the public and policymakers from the real problems with higher education access and success.
(It’s also important to consider that the majority of Pell Grant recipients enroll in for-profit and public two-year colleges, which are not included in these rankings.)
It’s tough to figure out how to rank colleges accurately and fairly on a large scale, but we can identify institutions at the extremes of quality — the best and the worst. The latter contribute disproportionately to our problems with college access and success.
Our Tough Love proposal suggests a method for identifying and challenging the worst colleges in performance and ethics, and encourages them to improve. It lays out how the federal government can establish minimum performance standards for four-year colleges and hold schools accountable for meeting those criteria.
This is a more productive way to improve low-income access and success for all students; incomplete rankings only do a disservice.