Catharine Hill thinks the Carnegie Foundation and the American Council on Education just might be—and that’s a good thing.
Since 1970, the Carnegie Classification system has helped make sense of the diversity of institutions that make up higher education in the U.S., grouping them based on the degrees they offer, their size and the research productivity of their faculty, among other measures. Earlier this year, the Carnegie Foundation and the American Council on Education announced that they would partner on the classifications and specifically described the need for the “Carnegie Classification system to reflect the nation’s pressing social, racial, and economic concerns and challenge higher education institutions and their public, social, and commercial sector partners to meaningfully address them.”
While inside the academy and among policy makers, the Carnegie Classifications denote important characteristics, this is not where parents and students look when they are making decisions about colleges. For that, U.S. News & World Report and its annual rankings carry the most weight. And for decades, U.S. News has been critiqued for not including measures of economic and social mobility or racial diversity in its formula—measures that ACE will now explicitly include in the Carnegie Classifications. While the classifications are not officially a ranking, by incorporating economic and social mobility as well as race, ACE is resurfacing critiques of the U.S. News rankings.
Alternative rankings such as The Washington Monthly’s have incorporated various attributes that reflect the public mission of higher education institutions—the reason colleges and universities are subsidized by local, state and federal governments. Over a decade ago, I proposed adding the share of Pell Grant recipients enrolled—compared to what might be expected given the selectivity of the college—to the variables used by U.S. News, and I reranked the top liberal arts colleges including this new measure. Those doing more for economic and social mobility—admitting a more diverse student body—moved up in the rankings, bumping down those doing less. My hope has been that a ranking that reflected these public benefits would encourage competition among the elite colleges on contributing to these public benefits, but to little avail. U.S. News did ultimately add two measures based on Pell Grants to its ranking, yet the combined weight is only 5 percent, doing little to reward a greater commitment to lower-income students on the part of colleges and universities.
Why? Because these efforts missed the point that U.S. News is produced for families and their children and not policy makers. Public goods are supplied by governments for precisely the reason that the market (made up of those families and their children) doesn’t take public benefits into account when making decisions.
So while institutions and policy makers claim that equal opportunity and support for economic mobility are important goals, U.S. News continues to dominate the rankings world because the families that are sending their children to the selective colleges that are ranked by U.S. News do not actually care that much about—or at least are not considering—these public benefits. If they did, U.S. News would give greater weight to the benefits in their rankings. But families likely understand that a commitment to socioeconomic and racial diversity implies greater expenditures on need-based aid, which takes resources away from other programs that would benefit their children, from smaller class sizes to renovated dormitories. And families that don’t need financial aid also worry that their children will lose “their” seats, reducing available seats for their children if too many are allocated to needy students.
If asked, students and families will say that they value diversity. Looking at where they live and where they send their children to kindergarten through high school suggests otherwise. They may mention the benefits of learning among a diverse group of classmates, yet looking at where they live and where they send their children to kindergarten through high school suggests otherwise. Residential segregation by income and race persists in America, and as a result, so does segregation in public schools.
If families truly believed in the benefits of diversity by income and race, they would not live in such homogeneous communities and would look for more diverse schools for their children before college.
Another criticism of the U.S. News rankings is that no one ranking is appropriate for all students and their families, since they may value different aspects of a college or university. Importantly, families care about different aspects of higher education in America. Families make decisions about the needs of their own children. Policy makers, in contrast, are making decisions about what benefits the public good the most.
Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to make U.S. News consider the metrics that measure the extent of whether higher education serves the public good. We could devise better rankings if we explicitly recognize that policy makers are a different audience from the families sending their children to college. The Carnegie Classifications, with a new emphasis on racial and socioeconomic diversity, should be of great interest to policy makers deciding on whether the subsidies allocated to colleges and universities are worth it in terms of their contributions to the public good.
Catharine Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College.
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