The Bar-On Brief: College ranking methodology overlooks some with financial need

It’s almost that time of year again. Hundreds of hopeful high school students will soon tour USC, attend Explore USC and ultimately make one of the most important decisions of their academic careers: where to attend college.

Naturally, many of these students consider a university’s ranking and financial aid offerings when deciding where they will spend the next four years. For many, the decision comes down to paying the least for the highest-ranked school.

But it is not always easy to strike a balance between these factors. The main reason is that the way the U.S. News and World Report ranks colleges fundamentally puts middle class students at an admissions and financial aid disadvantage.

The U.S. News and World Report slightly altered the way it ranks colleges in 2019, adding weight to a category they call “social mobility,” which refers to how many low-income students are enrolled and actually graduate. In measuring low-income, however, the ranking uses students who received Pell grants as its only metric. It’s true that there needs to be a line drawn somewhere between social classes and federal Pell grants are a standardized place to do so. Students who are eligible to receive Pell grants come from families that make less than $50,000 a year and most come from families that make under $20,000 per year.

But where does this leave families with yearly household incomes of, say, $51,000? Stuck with nothing, according to data analyzed by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, economists at Stanford University and the University of Virginia, respectively. Hoxby and Turner gathered admissions data nation wide and observed how results changed from 2008 — when rankings incentives to enroll more Pell grant recipients were nonexistent — to 2016.

It doesn’t take an expert data analyst to understand how a “V”-shaped admissions curve has slowly formed. Colleges are mainly enrolling students whose families are either not well off (Pell grant recipients), or students whose families are very well-off and can pay tuition at sticker price. It should be noted that the left side of the “V” is higher, meaning there are more Pell grant students than well-off students who are enrolled. But ultimately, everyone in the middle of these two extremes is disadvantaged.

Turner said the data shows institutions are “actively targeting Pell grant recipients,” and they are almost certainly giving their limited, additional financial aid dollars to these students as opposed to students whose families make just a few thousand dollars more. Even families making $100,000 per year, twice the income of the highest-earning Pell grant recipients, cannot easily afford to spend over 60 percent of their yearly earnings on a college tuition.

“If you’re a student who’s just above [the Pell threshold], you still need just as much financial aid as somebody who is just below,” Turner told Inside Higher Ed. “We know that there’s distortion going on there.”

Students are told from a young age that if they do well in school, they will be rewarded for their achievements with acceptance into a top university. This path, in essence, represents what the American Dream used to. But too often,  middle-class parents all over the country have to tell their children, “We can’t afford the American Dream. We can’t afford your dream school.”

Thankfully, some elite schools like USC offer merit-based aid, based entirely on the academic performance and ability of incoming students, regardless of family income. USC is one of few schools that has the endowment — and desire — to provide this type of aid. But USC does not get rewarded for its generosity in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, meaning there is little incentive for other universities to follow suit.

British economist Charles Goodhart coined a theory about controlling a statistical irregularity that can be best summarized as the following: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. His theory applies in remarkable fashion to college rankings: “social mobility” — what was once a measure — is now being manipulated precisely because it has become the target.

Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief” runs every other Tuesday.