New College Ranker Claims Others Have Bias Toward Wealthy

Published November 8, 2017

As college rankings grow in number, criticism has increased. The grandfather of all college rankings is the annual listings of best colleges by U.S. News and World Report, which began in 1987. The Wall Street Journal (working with Times Higher Education) and Forbes also rate colleges.

The online magazine Politico took aim at the U.S. News rankings in September. “A Politico review shows that the criteria used in the U.S. News rankings—a measure so closely followed in the academic world that some colleges have built them into strategic plans—create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants,” Benjamin Wermund wrote.

Specifically, U.S. News considers such criteria as how well a school’s freshmen scored on SAT and ACT tests, how few applicants it admits, its reputation with guidance counselors at highly ranked high schools, and its level of alumni support. These factors tend to encourage well-off students to gravitate to those schools, and they discourage or exclude those in families with low income, Wermund wrote.

Emphasis on Resources

Politico‘s criticisms represent a new twist on an old critique.

“The U.S. News system is overwhelmingly based on measurable inputs, including financial resources, faculty attributes, and student selectivity,” George Leef, director of research at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, wrote on the organization’s website more than a decade ago. “None of those, however, necessarily tells us anything about educational quality”

Economist Richard Vedder designed a different method of evaluating top schools for Forbes magazine in 2008. At the introduction of the rankings, Forbes said it chose criteria that “put itself into the student’s shoes.” Assuming students wanted to know a school’s success record, Forbes included elements such as how a school’s alumni ranked in Who’s Who and prizes such as Rhodes scholarships, what percentage of students graduated, and how much debt students held upon graduation.

In spite of those efforts, Vedder recently wrote for the website Minding the Campus there is “monotonous stability to the rankings,” saying they merely shuffle the elite schools. Sometimes Harvard is on top, sometimes Princeton, but they rarely change much.

“The top American universities resemble far more the old British aristocracy than the business institutions that ultimately provide them with most of their wealth and resources,” Vedder wrote.

Measuring Upward Mobility

The new system, “Mobility Report Cards,” addresses the concerns about bias toward the wealthy.

Designed by Raj Chetty, a Stanford University economics professor, the ranking system is intended to identify which schools provide upward mobility, measured by the number of entering students in the lowest income category who reach the top 20 percent of income in their thirties.

Chetty and his colleagues concede the actual mobility of elite or “Ivy-Plus” schools is high, with 60 percent of low-income students moving to the upper-income category. Chetty, however, sought out schools that have large numbers of low-income students and still provide mobility.

The result is a completely different list. At the top is Cal State University, followed by Pace University–New York and SUNY–Stony Brook. Sixteen percent of the students who attend Stony Brook are low-income, compared with just 4 per cent at “Ivy-Plus” colleges. Fifty-one percent of these schools’ students from the bottom 20 percent reach the top 20 percent, compared with 60 percent at “Ivy-Plus.” Most of Chetty’s list consists of public schools.

‘Asking the Wrong Questions’

The new ranking has aroused both interest and skepticism.

Jay Schalin, director of policy research for the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says Chetty’s system is based on the false assumption schools do the work of making students economically successful later in life.

“I was a little surprised to see how well SUNY–Stonybook’s students do, but there are problems with using averages rather than more granular data,” Schalin said. “Furthermore, it appears that Chetty and his co-researchers are asking the wrong questions. It is not the school one attends, but one’s inherent abilities, drive, and choice of majors that determine future income.”

Calls for More Research

John Merrifield, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says the Mobility Report Card is interesting and should spur more research.

“The idea behind the Report Card, it seems, is that some schools do more to admit slightly less-qualified applicants to boost their status and income,” Merrifield said. “But it should measure and count the tradeoff created by bringing in more students at the low end ability-wise, who may experience failure when they would succeed in a less selective university.”

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.


Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,”, September 2017: