Context matters when ranking colleges

September is the month of rankings. It seems every week someone is ranking colleges on some kind of scale — everyone from USA Today to Playboy to U.S. News and World Report. In September, the Washington Monthly issued a list of the nation’s worst colleges. The motivation behind its ranking is to provide a tool for those less-fortunate students that are forced to “choose among the many colleges that get lumped into broad lower tiers on best colleges lists.”

{mosads}The Washington Monthly ranking of the nation’s worst college is based on tuition costs, student incurred debt, student loan default rates and graduation rates. Unfortunately, the magazine, which is usually very positive and careful in its analysis, did not take into account the characteristics of students attending these institutions. It did not consider the socioeconomic status and preparation of the students enrolled, which play a large role in student success. High-ranking colleges and universities typically have two things in common — students from affluent homes and students with above average preparation — nearly guaranteeing high graduation rates. They also have other things in common, such as large endowments and wealthy alumni.

As someone who regularly writes about and researches Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), I noticed that quite a few HBCUs were on the Washington Monthly‘s ranking of “crappy” schools. These include St. Augustine’s University (North Carolina), Clark Atlanta University (Georgia), Shaw University (North Caroline), Arkansas Baptist College (Arkansas), Virginia Union University (Virginia), Benedict College (South Carolina), Central State University (Ohio), Mississippi Valley State University (Mississippi), Miles College (Alabama), Paine College (Georgia), Livingstone College (North Carolina), Bethune-Cookman University (Florida), Florida Memorial University (Florida) and Bennett College for Women (North Carolina).

Although some of these HBCUs are struggling and have been for years, others are not. To its credit, the Washington Monthly does acknowledge the unique and historic contributions that HBCUs make in society. However, without considering student characteristics — meaning the value that HBCUs must add to many of their students to make up for societal inequities and poor education at the K-12 level – these rankings are not fair or accurate. And, these rankings and the Washington Monthly itself point to the looming problem that most of the HBCUs noted above will face in the near future under the new federal college ranking system if that system does not account for student characteristics. It appears that the Department of Education is taking student characteristics seriously, but the Washington Monthly rankings provide more evidence that this is essential for giving students an accurate view of their chances for success at particular institutions.

By coming to the defense of HBCUs, I am not excusing low graduation rates nor the practice of allowing students to take on too much debt. All colleges and universities have to work to keep tuition costs reasonable, increase graduation rates and reduce student debt. However, we have to stop comparing colleges that serve students that represent the majority of the nation to colleges that serve only a small percentage of the nation’s students.

At the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, we recently issued an alternative college scorecard for the Obama administration to consider as it considers its federal ranking system. We hope that other entities that rank colleges and universities will also consider student inputs as well as institutional outputs when producing college rankings (especially those based on graduation rates). To do otherwise is to fail to provide accurate information to the nation’s students.

Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Tags College and university rankings Department of Education HBCUs Historically black colleges and universities Minority Serving Institution Washington Monthly

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