Latest U.S. News college rankings incorporate social mobility criteria

Hoping to better recognize schools that enroll and graduate students from low-income families, U.S. News modified the scoring system for its newly released 2019 Best Colleges rankings. However, the list—which reflects data from 1,800 colleges and universities—still has “traditional top-ranked institutions” in their usual positions, prompting questions about how much actually changed, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Adding social mobility factors

U.S. News says that economic diversity indicators now account for 13 percent of a school’s rank. U.S. News bumped up its “outcomes” measure, which includes graduation rates weighted for student demographics, from 30 percent of its formula to 35 percent. The publication also added two new social mobility factors that compose five percent of the total ranking: the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients, and how that number compares to the graduation rate of the overall student body, adjusted for the share of Pell recipients.

Inside Higher Ed explains the impact of this calculation: “If two colleges have the same Pell graduation rates, but one has a larger share of Pell recipients, the second college would earn more points in the formula.”

Reducing selectivity measures

Meanwhile, student selectivity, which includes SAT and ACT test scores, decreased to 10 percent of a school’s rank. U.S. News removed acceptance rates from its formula, as those had “long been seen as rewarding colleges for the number of applicants they reject.” It also reduced the weight of the “expert opinion” of college administrators and high school counselors, from 22.5 to 20 percent.

Some voice skepticism, others see impact

Critics say the methodology still favors wealthy, prestigious universities—for example, by using a six-year graduation rate—and set Historically Black Colleges and Universities at a disadvantage.

Jim Wolfston, president of CollegeNET, a technology developer serving higher education, said the changes are “a fig leaf” to hide continuing favoritism towards wealthy institutions and wealthy students. “The U.S. News rankings are not rankings of higher education,” Wolfston said. “They are rankings of the perpetuation of economic privilege.”

But the changes to U.S. News’s formula did have a positive impact on some schools, such as University of California, Riverside, which climbed 39 spots to 85th in the country. Riverside has a 73 percent graduation rate (the national average is 42 percent), an extremely diverse campus, a student body where fifty-six percent receive Pell Grants (five times the share at Harvard University), and a record of graduating more Pell Grant recipients each year than any other research university.

Kim A. Wilcox, chancellor at Riverside, said he is encouraged that U.S. News and other influential institutions “are beginning to recognize diversity, social mobility, and student success as hallmarks of what make a great university.” But he also noted that “it will take time to reverse decades of deference to traditional assumptions of institutional quality.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Debunking the myth of the ‘traditional’ student

Many people think of the typical college student as a recent high school graduate, living on campus, supported by their parents, but a recent NPR segment debunks that myth.