Since 1970, the Carnegie Classification System has helped make sense of the diversity of institutions that make up higher education in the United States, grouping them according to the degrees they offer, their size, and the productivity of research of their faculty, among other measures. Earlier this year, the Carnegie Foundation and the American Council on Education announcement that they would side with the classifications and specifically described the need for the “Carnegie Classification System to reflect the nation’s pressing social, racial and economic concerns and to challenge higher education institutions and their sector partners public, social and commercial to meaningfully address them. ”
While inside the academy and among policy makers the Carnegie classifications denote important characteristics, it is not where parents and students look when making decisions about colleges. For that, US News and World Report and its annual rankings carry the most weight. And for decades American News was criticized for not including measures of economic and social mobility or racial diversity in its formula – measures that the ACE will now explicitly include in the Carnegie classifications. Although the classifications are not officially a ranking, by incorporating economic and social mobility as well as race, ACE resurfaces criticisms of the American News rankings.
Alternative rankings such as The Washington Monthly‘s have incorporated various attributes that reflect the public mission of higher education institutions – the reason colleges and universities are funded by local, state, and federal governments. More than a decade ago, I proposed adding the share of Pell Grant recipients enrolled—compared to what one would expect given college selectivity—to the variables used by American News, and I have re-ranked top liberal arts colleges including this new measure. Those who do the most for economic and social mobility – admitting a more diverse student body – have moved up the rankings, overtaking those who do less. My hope was that a ranking reflecting these public benefits would encourage competition among elite colleges to contribute to these public benefits, but to no avail. American News finally added two measures based on Pell Grants to its ranking, but the combined weight is only 5%, which does little to reward greater commitment to low-income students by colleges and universities.
Why? Because these efforts have missed the point that American News is produced for families and their children and not for policy makers. Public goods are provided by governments precisely because the market (composed of these families and their children) does not consider public benefits when making decisions.
While institutions and policy makers claim that equal opportunity and support for economic mobility are important goals, American News continues to dominate the rankings world because families who send their children to selective colleges ranked by American News don’t really care about these public benefits, or at least don’t consider them. If they did, American News would give more weight to benefits in their ranking. But families likely understand that a commitment to socioeconomic and racial diversity entails greater spending on need-based aid, which diverts resources from other programs that would benefit their children, lower grades to renovated dormitories. And families who do not need financial aid also fear that their children will lose “their” places, which will reduce the places available for their children if too many places are allocated to needy students.
If asked, students and families will say they value diversity. Looking at where they live and where they send their children from kindergarten to high school suggests otherwise. They may mention the benefits of learning among a diverse group of classmates, but looking at where they live and where they send their kids from kindergarten through high school suggests otherwise. Residential segregation by income and race persists in America, and so does segregation in public schools.
If families truly believed in the benefits of income and racial diversity, they would not live in such homogeneous communities and would seek out more diverse schools for their children before college.
Another criticism of the American News rankings is that no ranking is appropriate for all students and their families, as they can value different aspects of a college or university. It is important to note that families care about different aspects of higher education in America. Families make decisions about the needs of their own children. Policy makers, on the other hand, make decisions about what benefits the public good the most.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to do WE New examine the metrics that measure how well higher education serves the public good. We could design better rankings if we explicitly recognized that policy makers are a different audience than families sending their children to college. The Carnegie Classifications, with a new focus on racial and socioeconomic diversity, should be of great interest to policy makers deciding whether grants to colleges and universities are worth it in terms of contributions to the public good.