U.S. News College Rankings and Pell Grants

Written by: Harley Frankel, Founder and Executive Director of College Match and Michele Siqueiros, President of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Equal educational opportunity and diversity have been core values of American democracy since the 18th Century. For these reasons, we have invested heavily in public education, land grant colleges and numerous public universities. But unfortunately, our higher education system has not done a very good job in the area of diversity.

Students from low-income families (defined as the bottom quarter of Americans ranked by income) are the most underrepresented group of Americans at the nation’s top colleges and universities, according to a 2004 Century Foundation report. Only 3% of students at the 146 most selective colleges come from families in this quartile. In stark contrast, 75% of all students at these institutions are from families in the top income quartile. This means that students in the upper income quartile are 25 times more likely to attend a top-ranked college than a student born to low-income parents. Since 2004, it does not appear that we have made much progress in this vital area. A 2009 McKinsey and Company report indicates that only 9% of the students in the nation’s top 120 colleges are from the bottom half of the income distribution.

Recently, the President held a Summit at The White House to focus on increasing college access for low-income students. At this session, the President said, “I’m going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked…and I’ve got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission.”

There is one very important call that the President could make to ensure that hundreds of thousands of qualified low-income students would be admitted into great colleges over the next decade or so.

In April 2006, one of our nation’s most influential CEO’s wrote an editorial entitled “Fairness and the Future.”  The opening of this fine piece follows:

“America’s franchise on the future is endangered. We have triumphed because we are a democracy of free enterprise but also one that seeks to maintain equal opportunity. We do this out of a sense of justice and a pragmatic recognition that the realization of innate talents benefits the whole community. Higher education has been the key. We have had a love affair with it and have seen it open the door to the masses through a combination of philanthropy and state support. Today, however, sadly, that door is beginning to close.”

The editorial concluded with a call to action:  “We must not allow our universities to become bastions of privilege, rather than instruments of social mobility.”

The author of this article, Mortimer Zuckerman owner and publisher of U.S. News, has himself been a man of action throughout his career.  A successful businessman, he has also devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to improving our higher education system and our nation as a whole.

And he has significant influence in America to usher in a significant increase in higher educational diversity by making one simple decision.  This decision would not require an increase in Federal or State funding and would not cost the taxpayers one cent.  All he has to do is instruct his U.S. News staff to include the percentage of Pell Grant students in colleges and universities as a measure in the U.S. News Rankings with the same weight as average SAT scores.  The colleges will do the rest, and America will become a much better nation.  This one move will allow us to utilize more of our human resources and will help reduce the increasingly large gap between the affluent and the poor that is imperiling our future.

The U.S. News rankings have enormous influence over the behavior of Boards of Trustees, College Presidents, alumni, college administrators and most importantly, college admissions offices.  If a college improves its ranking by one level (e.g. from 15 to 14) alumni are happy and Boards and Presidents let the Admissions Office know how pleased they are.  The pressures to improve or at least maintain one’s ranking are so great that some schools have engaged in extreme (and at times ethically dubious) behavior.  Some top colleges have exaggerated their SAT scores.  One new university President urged his admissions staff to travel extensively around the globe in order to generate a large number of applications (most of which would be rejected) so that the college had a lower percentage acceptance rate, thereby increasing its U.S. News ranking.  Another college in a consortium of several colleges which had agreed to allow all of the students to take classes at any of the colleges in the consortium placed a limitation on cross-registration at 19 students per class in order to a maintain a high percentage of its classes under 20 (a U.S. News ranking category.

Given the pressures on college admissions offices to improve their U.S. News ranking, there would be a significant increase in low-income students on the campuses of superb universities if U.S. News were to make this change.  He has the ability to create “the instruments of social mobility” that he wrote about so eloquently in 2006.

And, in so doing, Mr. Zuckerman undoubtedly would be enabling colleges to do what they already strongly desire to do.  In all honesty, the vast majority of Deans of Admission and their excellent staffs are committed to diversity and equal educational opportunity.   However, the U.S. News Rankings are perceived by many parents and others in the higher education community as an indication of the quality of an institution of higher learning.  College officials and Trustees want their institution to be ranked as high as possible and some colleges end up valuing some measures like SAT scores and admission ratios above the more important American values of equal opportunity and social mobility for all Americans, regardless of their wealth.

But unfortunately, the rankings do not give colleges and universities any credit for serving low-income students.  Actually, even though college success is not strongly correlated with SAT scores, these scores do help improve a college’s U.S. News Ranking.  Sadly, many low-income students do not have access to standardized test preparation classes or the best college prep courses in their under resourced schools, and as a result, are at a great disadvantage in the college admissions process.

In fact, SAT scores are only strongly correlated with one variable—FAMILY INCOME.  A few years ago, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) established a commission on standardized testing.  This commission included some of the most highly respected professionals in the college admissions field and was chaired by William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard College.  The commission made a number of compelling recommendations including requesting that U.S. News not include SAT/ACT scores in their formula for ranking colleges and universities.  The exact language follows:

“The Commission believes that, as tests designed to provide information about individuals to colleges and universities, the SAT and ACT were never designed as measures of the quality of an institution of higher education. Accordingly, the Commission encourages U.S. News to eliminate test scores as a measure of institutional quality.”

Unfortunately, U.S. News ignored the NACAC recommendation.  It is important to recognize the relationship between FAMILY INCOME being the only variable strongly correlated to SAT test scores and the fact that many highly qualified low-income students do not have high standardized test scores.   The reality is affluent families spend literally millions of dollars in test preparation classes for their children knowing that these expenditures (which of course low-income families cannot afford) will give their children a huge advantage in college admissions.  Of course affluent students also attend significantly better schools, with greater resources, more experienced teachers and opportunities provided that low-income students may never get to enjoy (Remember the 2009 McKinsey study that shows that 91% of the students in the nation’s top schools are from families in the UPPER HALF of the income distribution.)

U.S. News reinforces this disadvantage by placing such an enormous importance on SAT scores.  If U.S. News were to include the percentage of Pell Grant students on a college campus as a variable in their rankings formula with equal weight to the SAT variable, they would be providing balance and neutralizing the huge advantage they currently provide to wealthy students and the major incentive they give to colleges to put overemphasis on these scores in their admissions process.

This is a key reason why so few low-income students are admitted to these outstanding institutions of higher learning.   Since U.S. News did not accept the NACAC recommendation, the only reasonable course of action would be to neutralize the negative effects of including SAT scores in their formula by adding the percentage of Pell Grants in a student body to their formula with the same weight as the average SAT scores.  A move along these lines would greatly increase college diversity and improve the quality of education for all Americans.

Accordingly, President Obama should ask and persuade Mortimer Zuckerman, to direct his staff to make this move.  One successful phone conversation will result in significantly more college diversity and a far greater America.

About the Authors:

Harley Frankel is the Founder & Executive Director of College Match.

Co-Author:

Michele Siqueiros is the President of the Campaign for College Opportunity.