​Access or Prestige: Can Colleges Do Both by US News?

Student Success

​Access or Prestige: Can Colleges Do Both by US News?

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 22, 2017

​Access or Prestige: Can Colleges Do Both by US News?

This article is part of the guide: Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There.

Most U.S. colleges see pronounced gaps in completion rates along racial and economic lines. Asian and white students graduate at a rate of 63.2 percent and 62.0 percent, respectively, while just 45.8 percent of Hispanic and 38.0 percent of black students complete their degrees, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse.

The University of California, Riverside is one of just two campus in the U.S. where this trend is bucked: minority and low-income students graduate at almost the same rate as the campus-wide average (73 percent for 6-year graduation rates), and black students graduate at a higher rate than whites by about 1.7 percent. But gains like that don’t always raise a college’s ranking in the popular U.S. News and World Report list of the nation’s top colleges (it could even lead to a fall on that list). And that puts colleges into the uncomfortable position of having to choose between prestige and access.

Big wins, big upsets

In the 2010-11 academic year, UC Riverside’s six-year graduation rate was 66 percent. That number has climbed after a series of initiatives, including implementing a graduation task force, creating tools for advisors to track and intervene with student progress, and providing 82 percent of undergraduates with financial aid.

The university’s successes have been awarded and recognized widely—except in the U.S. News college rankings, where the school has dropped over the years. In the 2010-11 academic year, before major programs and reforms to improve graduation rates for underrepresented students had taken off, Riverside was at 94 on the list. This year, they dipped 30 points to number 124.

A recent bombshell report by POLITICO shows the Southern California campus is not alone—it’s one of several institutions working to improve graduation rates for low-income and minority students that fell in the U.S. News rankings. What’s more, the article shows that colleges who appear towards the top of the list accept the most elite and high-income students.

The report points to Georgia State University as “a national model for graduating more low- and moderate-income students,” and it is the only other institution in the country without achievement gaps, according to Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. To get there, the college has developed an integrated advising system where students are given a “risk level” for advisors to determine when outreach is necessary, predictive analytics, and other digital safety nets for students.

But similar to UC Riverside, Georgia State dropped 30 spots in the 2016 rankings, compared to five years earlier.

When asked if the possibility of falling so far in the rankings was a consideration at all during the design and implementation period of the success programs, Timothy Renick, vice president for enrollment management and student success at GSU, told EdSurge: “We had conversations along those lines when we decided to stop focusing on SAT scores and looking at grades. We realized it could have impacts on the rankings, but it wasn’t a huge factor weighing on us.”

Since reducing emphasis on SAT scores, the college has been able to admit more students from the lower 60 percent of income earners. But SAT and ACT scores account for 65 percent of an institution's selectivity ranking, which makes up 12.5 percent of a college’s overall score by U.S. News.

A new goal post

“I don’t believe [the rankings] should be a focus, but I know in fact that it is at some colleges,” says Renick. “Given the way the rankings are established, it was a realm we weren't going to try to compete in, and we don’t see value in competing in.”

Kim Wilcox, Chancellor of UC Riverside, thinks colleges should never have to choose between inclusiveness and excellence, but access and prestige can be at odds if that is being measured only by the most popular ranking system. “We increased diversity and quality of freshman class, and all this time we drop in U.S. News,” he says. “You should get points for being more inclusive, but that’s not what U.S. News recognizes.”

Like Renick, Wilcox says his college also isn’t vying for a top spot. “There are different institutions with different goals and values, and a whole bunch of regional public universities like Riverside that have been living by the right values for a long time,” he says. “They aren’t chasing the rankings, they are trying to [graduate more students] as affordably as possible. But there are many more universities that are trying to gain in the rankings.”

U.S. News defends its methodology. In response to the POLITICO article, the magazine's chief data strategist Robert Morse wrote:

U.S. News values graduation and retention rates and graduate rate performance – a measure specifically designed to recognize schools that are working to help the most disadvantaged students and penalize those that aren't – above all else. At 30 percent, these measures far outweigh financial resources, alumni giving and selectivity – the focus of Politico's article.
Acceptance rate is just 1.25 percent. If schools want to rise in the U.S. News rankings, they should devote their resources to academically and financially supporting their students through graduation.

Neither Wilcox nor Renick deny that rankings matter for many people, from university presidents to prospective students. (POLITICO also points out that “the president of one school ranked in the top 20 said the college caps classes at 19 students, simply because the rankings reward schools for keeping classes under 20 students.”) Wilcox believes the reason U.S. News gets the most attention is because it was one of the first mainstream publications to come up with a college-ranking list. “It got to define the space,” he says, and in some ways, the strategies colleges choose.

Still, both officials say they are less concerned with the position in the rankings as they are with their mission to increase access and graduation for more students.

Wilcox believes and accepts that colleges like his may not be able to win by the U.S. News standards if they are to continue on their trajectories, but given the value some people place on rankings, he hopes that might change. And he thinks that change is already coming. The chancellor points to other rankings systems such as the Washington Monthly—where Riverside was dubbed the 21st best national university—that he thinks are beginning to pay attention to campuses working on increasing inclusivity over exclusivity. “The explosion of rankings systems we have seen is a step in the right way.”

This article has been updated to reflect that two U.S. colleges, both UC Riverside and Georgia State, do not have achievement gaps.

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