U.S. News and World Report is changing the formula for its widely read college rankings to reward schools that enroll and graduate more students from low-income families — a year after a POLITICO report showed that the rankings promote economic inequality on campuses.
The new methodology is reflected in the 2019 "best colleges" edition, out Monday. It’s the first update to the rankings since POLITICO reported that they create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants. The rankings are so closely followed in the academic world that some colleges have built them into strategic plans.
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Still, the top of the U.S. News rankings doesn’t look that much different than in years past. The top spots among national universities are still dominated by the Ivy League and other elite private schools. Princeton and Harvard were No. 1 and No. 2. Third place was split among Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago and Yale.
The formula now includes indicators meant to measure "social mobility" and drops an acceptance rate measure that benefited schools that turned the most students away. U.S. News says the changes are based on discussions with college leaders during the last year and the new social mobility indicator is based on newly available federal data.
Among the colleges that benefited most from the changes was the entire California university system — "partly due to the universities’ performance graduating high proportions of low-income students," said Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News & World Report.
Five University of California schools received a rank in the top 10 of Top Public Schools among National Universities: Los Angeles at No. 1, Berkeley at No. 2, Santa Barbara tied at No. 5, Irvine at No. 7 and Davis tied at No. 10.
"U.S. News continuously evolves the Best Colleges methodology," Morse said. "There is an active and ongoing debate about how to best measure quality in education, and we pay close attention to that debate. Over time, our ranking model has put more emphasis on outcomes measures … As part of this evolving process, we’ve wanted to measure whether schools were successful at serving all of their students, regardless of economic status."
The new social mobility indicators account for 5 percent of the ranking formula. One of them simply weighs the graduation rates of students who receive federal Pell Grants, which go to lower-income students.
The other indicator takes it a step further and measures the differences in graduation rates of Pell Grant students and students who don’t receive Pell Grants at the same school, which Morse said "evaluates a school’s success at achieving equity between low-income students and their peers."
Scores are adjusted so schools that enroll the highest percentage of low-income students get the most credit for these graduation rates, Morse said.
The formula previously only accounted for economic diversity through a measure it calls "graduation rate performance," which controls for factors like test scores and income and predicts what a school’s graduation rate should be. If the actual rate is higher, U.S. News deemed the college was “enhancing achievement, or over-performing,” and it would get a boost.
That factor remains and when combined with the new social mobility indicators, Morse says 13 percent of a school’s rank is now dependent on the economic diversity of its campus.
U.S. News is also no longer factoring in a school’s acceptance rate. It used to give a boost to schools with lower rates — a measure many colleges sought to achieve by leaning more on early decision admissions, which hurt lower-income students who apply to more schools in order to compare financial aid packages.
The publication is also giving less weight to a student selectivity measure that relies heavily on students’ scores on tests like the SAT and ACT — which have been shown to correlate with wealth. The measure is now only 10 percent of the formula, down from 12.5 percent.