U.S. News Adds Another Perverse Incentive

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, has long been a critic of the U.S. News & World-Report Best Colleges ranking. Writing in the Washington Post, he offers an analysis that is identical in ways to the indictment of America’s higher-education system we make here in Bacon’s Rebellion.

By focusing on factors like SAT scores, spending per student, alumni giving and surveys of peer institutional leaders, the rankings have long created incentives for college presidents eager for better U.S. News & World-Report scores to raise prices, compete for status and market themselves to the children of the affluent. In this way, U.S. News has been both a driver and a validator of an increasingly elitist and dysfunctional American higher education system. …

We’ve lavished more and more attention and dollars on a small number of highly selective schools that increasingly cater to upper-income families, while the bottom 90 percent of students struggle to pay tuition typically at underfunded public institutions, or, worse, at predatory for-profit schools.

I agree entirely with this critique. Unfortunately, in his zeal to combat elitism, Glastris advances ideas that are potentially pernicious as well. He lauds U.S. News for updating its ranking methodology to favor colleges and universities that “succeed at enrolling and graduating students from low-income families.” Indeed, he argues that U.S. News should give more weight to what he calls “social mobility” metrics, as Washington Monthly does in its own annual college rankings.

Underlying his argument is this core proposition: “Because of changes in the economy, a post-secondary credential has gone from something every American ought to have a right to pursue to something every American needs to pursue just to have a shot at the middle class.”

Let me be clear: Socio-economic mobility is a good thing. I believe in creating a society that rewards merit and provides opportunity for all. However, I worry that Glastris’s idea can easily go off the rails.

First, a “post-secondary credential” is a very different thing from a “college education.” For hundreds of thousands of Virginians, a post-secondary credential may provide skill sets that open up jobs requiring some technical knowledge such as plumbers, electricians, HVAC repairmen, cable TV installers, and IT help desk workers. It is unquestionably in the public interest to ensure that Virginians have affordable access to community colleges and career colleges (which U.S. News & World-Report does not rank), which provide those highly marketable skills. But we should not leap to the idea that everyone should have a shot at a four-year, residential college education, which is implied by Glastris’ emphasis on applying social-mobility metrics to all colleges and universities, including institutions that cater to the cognitive elite.

Here in Virginia we have a system of higher education, in which different institutions fill different niches. The University of Virginia and College of William & Mary cater to Virginians (as well as a significant number of out-of-state students) who belong to the cognitive elite. Their curricula and academic standards are geared toward students with the strongest verbal and mathematical skills. Other public institutions cater to students with skills and academic backgrounds that aren’t quite as high, and some to students whose skills are considerably lower. While it is praiseworthy for a UVa or W&M to aggressively recruit academically qualified students from lower-income backgrounds and to make sure they can afford the cost of attendance, it would be a misallocation of resources — and, just as importantly, a dis-service to the students — to admit students who lack the wherewithal to compete successfully. Students who struggle at UVa might prosper at, say, George Mason University or Virginia Commonwealth University.

When U.S. News & World-Report gives weight to “social mobility” metrics, it incentivizes that very misallocation. Under social justice logic, the responsibility to provide higher-ed access to lower-income Virginians belongs not to Virginia’s higher-ed institutions as a system, but also to UVa and W&M as individual institutions. But the proper way to foster upward mobility is for all institutions to define their niche, identify the students appropriate to that niche, recruit them, and serve them well — in other words to place students where they will prosper. If you take issue with a system that lavishes resources upon elite institutions, then target the tax breaks for alumni donations and endowments by which elite institutions perpetuate their elite status. (For the record, Glastris does express approval of a provision in the 2017 tax code that taxes large university endowments.)

A second and related concern is that the obsession over lower-income Virginians attending college overlooks the terrible reality of collapsing academic standards in many Virginia public high schools, especially those that serve low-income students, raising the question of whether many grads belong in college at all. Many metrics by which we gauge the performance of Virginia’s high schools are untrustworthy. Social promotion is rampant. Administrators manipulate high school drop-out and graduation rates. More students than ever require remedial schooling in college. Promoting the idea that “every American” needs to pursue higher education just increases the stakes, intensifies these pathologies, encourages kids to attend college when they shouldn’t, and loads drop-outs with student-loan debt they cannot repay.

Yes, it is vital that Virginia provide pathways of upward mobility for all of its citizens. Yes, we should ensure that academically qualified students from lower-income households have the means to attend the best institutions they can gain admittance to. Yes, we should be skeptical of a U.S. News & World-Report ranking system that incentivizes colleges and universities to squander resources in the competition for status. But ranking higher-ed institutions according to “social mobility” metrics just adds another layer of perverse incentives.

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13 responses to “U.S. News Adds Another Perverse Incentive

  1. You know the thing that really strikes me about this is that any publication is free to publish any ranking – and others are free to read or ignore or disagree all or in part with any and all of it.

    And yet we talk about this as if what they are doing is somehow wrong.

    We’ve got think tanks out there that publish all kinds of outright trash, propaganda, and lies even and we defend them even give credence to their dubious claims but we attack US News… for merely doing “rankings” based on their own freely-admitted subjective criteria.

    My head is spinning ..

  2. Larry, you are acting like Jim is stifling USNWR’s 1st Amendment rights when what he is really doing is exercising his, which is how it should work. If your head is spinning, it is because you have some form of logical vertigo.

    • Thanks, Izzo.

      Larry, does my post really strike you as an “attack”? I don’t assail anyone personally, I don’t question anyone’s motives, I don’t apply any pejorative adjectives. I think of my post as a measured disagreement, in which I carefully explain my reasoning and invite (through comments) anyone to express disagreement.

      How would you describe your comment, in which you say think tanks publish “outright trash, propaganda, and lies even” — without giving a single example? Would that constitute an “attack”?

      • re: ” Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, has long been a critic of the U.S. News & World-Report Best Colleges ranking. Writing in the Washington Post, he offers an analysis that is identical in ways to the indictment of America’s higher-education system we make here in Bacon’s Rebellion.”

        Good Lord! we’re linking US news ranking system with the “indictment” of America’s Higher Ed system.

        really?

        I’d say this is even more than an attack on one thing! It’s an assault against all things you don’t like!

        Obviously US News in in cahoots with liberal elitism and all things bad!

      • I agree completely with Jim’s premise that the addition of a social mobility ratings factor is pernicious. If it’s good for assessing colleges, shouldn’t we rate high schools on the same basis? Is the goal equal access to an education and the opportunitiy for social and economic advancement that affords? Or is it equal access to some direct measure of the “good life” as defined by USNWR?

        • An interesting point by Acbar. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (the top ranked high school in the country in some ratings) likely has admissions based much more strictly on academic merit than UVA or W&M, for instance. TJHS is now over 70% Asian, I believe.

          • I think there may be some confusion/conflation over the difference between equal access and opportunity to all kids regardless of their social or economic status – …. and …. ADDITIONAL opportunities for ALL – again on a non-discriminatory basis – based on merit.

            So – we want a basic K-12/Higher Ed education system that truly provides equal access and opportunity to all kids regardless of their economic or social status.

            How is that a bad thing? Should enrollment in typical Higher Ed – reflect the diversity of our population?

            I think the answer to that question is NOT for US News to answer but I think providing that information to the general population is something of interest of many including those who may want to make a selection based on a given Higher Ed policies with respect to social and economic status.

            Making this a metric that is collected and reported is NOT a reason to reject such a ranking ..by any entity including US NEWs.

            Rather it says something about those folks who oppose showing that info or having it play a role in a ranking.

            ANY entity can do a ranking – using whatever metrics they think are relevant. If Conservative type folks don’t like rankings that are based on such things – the obvious thing is for Conservative publications and media to do their own rankings based on what THEY think are most relevant and important.

            This constant carping from Conservatives about what they don’t like from publications like US News is conflicted …and silly.

            There are dozens if not more different ratings to choose from. As time goes by and more and more people DO recognize the reality that there actually is discrimination against folks based on economic and social status – it seems reasonable to add that as a metric.

            The core principle with respect to Education in a free and Democratic society -most all industrialized countries – is that, in fact, a child is supposed to have equal access to whatever education is offered – and what we are seeing is that this proposition is not being met for all kids. Our K-12/Higher Ed institutions actually have biases in them that favor those of better economic and social circumstances.

            Kids who live in lower income neighborhoods and in families where Mom/Dad do not have a higher education or for than matter even a decent basic education – those kids do not have access to the better schools in their school district and as they move up to High School – those neighborhood high schools do not have the same College Track programs and resources that High Schools in more prosperous neighborhood schools do have.

            The attitude sometimes seems to be “that’s the way it is, we can’t fix all of it”… but that’s the point – our system is supposedly predicated on equal access to education – and we are not achieving that claimed core principle.

            It’s bad enough that we do not really have equal access – it’s even worse that some of us would argue that it should not be information collected and reflected in rankings…

            So .. what is the good reason why we should not reflect these realities in an ranking system?

  3. Simple … entering SAT scores + graduating student salaries by employment category + salaries by category 10 years after graduation. Let standardized tests and the market decide the value of various colleges’ degrees.

    • Yep – some ordinary common sense .. if you don’t like US NEWs rankings OR the others – then pick your own and be happy and don’t be bitching about how others rank much less try to link them with “elitism”.. and other liberal “outrages”.

      Bacon is basically arguing against US News daring to use “liberal” ideas in it’s rankings.. as if – it’s wrong and can lead to serious misunderstandings.. bad breath.. and serious armpit odor malfunctions..

      jeeze

      all because NS News dares to do it’s rankings a certain way.

      and yes.. in the meantime we have these folks like PILF that cloak themselves as if they are a credible outfit – in the most pernicious idiocy about election registration.

      PILF …good.. US News “bad”.. hmmmm

      someone has got to at least hold Bacon to account for some of this foolish stuff… and no – calling what PILF and similar think tanks “create” is trash is way different than accusing US News itself of creating “bad” rankings that lead to the debasement of higher ed as we know it. LORD!

    • Suffice to say – ANYONE can set up a ranking system with criteria THEY deem as important and related.

      ANYONE is free to agree or disagree with such rankings but what is going on here seems to be that because the ranking has gained some level of credence with people that it then constitutes an elite “threat” because it dares to tread on things like social mobility and of course that nasty ” obsession over lower-income Virginians ” that then, of course… ” But ranking higher-ed institutions according to “social mobility” metrics just adds another layer of perverse incentives.”

      I mean .. LORD!!!! we attacking ONE college ranking because it includes metrics about social mobility and lower income students and all of a sudden.. it’s a huge problem!

      I guess I’m waiting for the Conservative responses to the MSM and those uber-liberal publications like US News…

      Why don’t all those Conservative think tanks and media develop their own “Conservative” rankings ..and tamp down all this carping?

  4. Comment submitted on behalf of Paul Glastris:

    I appreciate your thoughtful post on the op ed I wrote in the Washington Post about U.S News’ college rankings and the alternative rankings we publish in the Washington Monthly. You are certainly correct that Virginia high schools need to do a better job of preparing their students for life after graduation. But I sense in your criticism that you think I am arguing for all Virginia students to strive for bachelors degrees at four year institutions. In fact, what I am arguing is that virtually all students need some form of post secondary education and credential. For many of them, that will mean a two year associates degree at a community college or a one year vocational certificate. Absent some form of post secondary credential, it is hard for anyone in this day and age to reach the middle class. In the current issue of the magazine, we include the first ever ranking of colleges that provide vocational certificates. I invite you and your readers to take a look.

    Best,

    Paul

  5. Any group can publish a ranking. But US News and World Reports is the most influential in higher education. It’s the rankings that deans follow, and they make policy decisions to influence its rankings.

    To the extent that USNWR creates perverse incentives, and there are plenty of examples, it deserves the criticism it gets.

    But the discussion regarding USNWR is just a diversion from Jim’s main point – academic studies are not for everyone, and our economy requires diverse skills, most of which are not taught at academic institutions.

    Our goal should be a diverse system of education that gives basic skills to all and provides individuals the opportunity to develop their particular skills, whether academic or technical.

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