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Ranking Colleges by “Economic Diversity”

December 15, 2009

In an effort to show which colleges are reaching out to low-income students, U.S. News & World Report has published “economic diversity” rankings of American colleges and universities. That sounds ambitious, but the rankings are based solely on the percentage of students at each institution who receive federal Pell grants, which mostly go to applicants from families with incomes under $20,000 a year. The magazine concedes that the percentage of Pells “isn’t perfect” as a measure of commitment to enrolling low-income students, but says many experts consider it the best available gauge.

Highest in the rankings is an institution most American have likely never heard of—the University of La Verne, La Verne, California, with 89 percent of students on Pell grants. Many colleges at the top of these rankings, unsurprisingly, are non-selective institutions, many of which explicitly cater to low-income students. Among the highest-ranking high-prestige colleges and universities are UCLA (35 percent) and the University of California, Berkeley (32 percent). The most selective institutions tend to cluster low in the rankings, at 10 percent (Yale, Princeton, Duke, Tufts, Northwestern) or below (Notre Dame, William and Mary, Virginia, Washington University in St Louis).

The rankings respond to complaints that U.S. News focuses too tightly on rich private universities, as well as to complaints that race and gender preferences ought to be converted into class-based ones that help the children of the poor regardless of race or gender. Pell-based rankings are simple, easy to compile and demonstrate U.S. News’ social concern. But are they helpful? Not yet. It isn’t useful to know a college’s percentage of Pell students (the figure at the University of Texas—El Paso is 53 percent) unless you also know the likelihood that those students will succeed (small in the case of UTEP, which has a graduation rate of 7 percent after six years).

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