How Economically Diverse Is Your College? A 'New York Times’ Ranking May Soon Tell

Stephen Voss/Redux

“Our project is much more of an analysis than it is any attempt at a comprehensive ranking,” says David Leonhardt, who heads The Upshot, the 'Times' division that will produce the new ratings.
August 29, 2014

The New York Times is entering the college-ratings game. Sorta. Kinda.

Next month it plans to unveil "a new ranking of colleges and universities based on their ability to attract underprivileged kids." Or at least that’s how the project is billed on the agenda for the Schools for Tomorrow conference that the newspaper is holding next week in New York City.

That the Times is getting into ratings is notable. And it is doing so in a way that is likely to please many opponents of the popular rankings by U.S. News & World Report (due out the day after the Times is scheduled to unveil its new project). Critics of the U.S. News rankings argue that they contribute to a lack of socioeconomic diversity, by creating incentives for colleges to spend on things like bigger faculty salaries and smaller class sizes, rather than student aid for financially needy students.

"Having The New York Times shine light on the fact that an institution has very little economic diversity could have a powerful shaming effect" and be "an important counterweight," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a proponent of class-based affirmative action. "Right now," he added, "it’s easier to hide."

But the extent of that shaming effect is hard to predict. For one thing, the Times project may not be the kind of consumer-focused ranking that is familiar to readers of U.S. News, the New York Times Company’s promotional language notwithstanding. That puts the Times’s project more in the vein of the Washington Monthly’s College Guide, which focuses on how much colleges contribute to their students and the country.

A ‘Targeted’ Approach

The Times’s rankings come from "The Upshot," the data-focused "explainer" unit begun in April and edited by David Leonhardt. "Our project is much more of an analysis than it is any attempt at a comprehensive ranking," Mr. Leonhardt said in an email message to The Chronicle this week. "We’re in no way trying to compete with the various ‘best school’ rankings out there."

The rankings by U.S. News or the Washington Monthly, and even the college-rating system now being developed by the Obama administration, "are all attempts at some kind of comprehensive overview," Mr. Leonhardt said in a follow-up interview on Thursday. What The Upshot plans to unveil, starting with the findings being released at the September conference, is a "a more targeted look," based on particular slices of data. "We’re not trying to do a comprehensive, throw-everything-in look at colleges."

For all the many college guides and news outlets covering higher education, Mr. Leonhardt contends that the topic is still worthy of more attention. "There’s a dearth of certain kinds of information," he said. "What strikes me is how little even well-informed people know about college."

And for those who have followed Mr. Leonhardt’s career—he was previously a Times columnist writing about economics—the focus on socioeconomic diversity should come as no surprise. "That’s a topic I think is extremely important" to matters of economic mobility and equality, he said.

He declined, politely, to share more about the scope of "rankings" until their release.

Mr. Leonhardt said he hopes the information that The Upshot produces will inform both policy makers and families.

But some experts wonder how influential those rankings will actually be with consumers. For example, the Washington Monthly’s guide, whose latest edition came out this week, is noted for things like its evaluation of colleges on social mobility and how colleges’ actual graduation rates compare with their expected graduation rates (the latter are based on the academic profile of a college’s student body).

Such analyses—attempting to measure what a college contributes to its students, as opposed to measures based on a college’s spending or its selectivity—are "valuable as a matter of public policy, but I’m not sure students care about that," said Ben Wildavsky, director of higher-education studies at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government and a policy professor at SUNY-Albany. He also used to oversee college guides at U.S. News.

And realistically, Mr. Wildavsky added, for some families, the information might even be a turn-off. Parents might want to send their kids to a college where there are already a lot of well-prepared students, "even though there’s not a lot of value added."

Limited Audience

Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly, said that as much as he and his editors would love to have more prospective college students and their families as readers, they recognize reality. "Not too many people use our ratings to decide which college to go to," he said. "We’re definitely more geared toward policy makers."

The magazine started its rankings in 2005. "At first it was a quirky, cheeky alternative to U.S. News," he said, but over time the magazine has added more and more components to help readers see how well their tax dollars, as well as the tax benefits that flow to colleges, are being used.

Mr. Glastris is also one of several people who noted that the Times’s readership (and often its lifestyle coverage) skews toward the affluent. "That’s all the more reason they should be applauded for it," he said.

The Times’s ratings are unlikely to upend the dominance of U.S. News, said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of education, leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University who helped develop some of the Washington Monthly’s ratings and has advised the Obama administration in the development of its rating system. (The influence of the U.S. News rankings were further demonstrated this week, in a Boston magazine article detailing Northeastern University’s successful 17-year campaign to crack its top-100 list.)

But the ratings by the Times could be a boon to some "striver colleges," he said. "Putting The New York Times’s seal of approval on it could really have meaning, especially for less-selective, lesser-known colleges."

Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College—a more-selective institution that has made socioeconomic diversity a high priority, with about a quarter of its students qualifying for Pell Grants—said she sees greater promise in the ratings. It could influence policy makers, and "it might have an impact on lower-income families that are looking for schools that might be affordable to them," she said.

But that’s only part of the equation, said Ms. Hill, who will be speaking at the conference next week. "It’s not just an information issue," she added. To serve more lower-income students, "schools would have to allocate significantly more resources."