Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

American college rankings: rating prestige or economic diversity?

At times when OECD data are pointing out to the alarming decreasing trend in upward educational mobility, the New York Times releases its College Access Index to measure top colleges’ efforts to achieve economic diversity. The rankings are derived from a formula based on two factors: the share of freshmen coming from low-income families (measured as those receiving a Pell Grant) and the net price of attendance for low and middle-income families. The index chart is led by Vassar College with 23% of its freshmen having received federal Pell Grants (meaning they come from the bottom 40% of the income distribution) and with an average annual attendance cost for lower-income students of about USD 6 000, a reasonable sum that students can cover through loans and campus jobs. However, criticisms have been raised since only colleges with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75% have been considered: a standard met only by around 100 colleges, all of which are private institutions except for three. Although the top 3 universities of the index (Vassar College, Grinnell College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) are institutions that in traditional rankings do not reach the peaks of Harvard University (here placed on 6th position), at the same time they do not even receive as many low-income students as other public institutions that do not meet the 75% requirement.

The NYTimes College Access Index came out on Monday 8th September, a day earlier than the release of the U.S. News’ popular annual rankings. The latter presented a more predictable picture: Princeton University and Williams College were confirmed first among national universities and national liberal arts schools respectively, when both of them have been holding the title for the previous three years. While the U.S. News rankings provide showcase and recognition for many universities seeking visibility in a highly competitive market, its formula is controversial. Measuring a mix of financial resources, admission rates, graduation rates and peer surveys, U.S. News rankings are blamed for being consumer-focused and for portraying more the prestige rather than the real performance of institutions. 

This criticism towards traditional rankings has already brought the Obama administration to come up with the idea to create a more comprehensive Postsecondary Institution Rating System to evaluate universities by their performance, including their openness to students of disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, June 2014). Will the US Department of Education be happier with the formula used by the NYTimes?

NYTimes College Access Index

U.S. News College Rankings 2014-2015