In ‘New York Times’ Ranking, Elite Colleges Are Judged on Economic Diversity

Update (9/10/2014, 2:27 p.m.): The College of William & Mary was removed from the Times’s analysis after the college notified the newspaper that its net-price figure was incorrect, apparently due to inaccurate federal data. The Times’s David Leonhardt wrote in an email on Wednesday that the newspaper had asked the Department of Education and the college to “sort out the issue” so the college could be returned to the list “as quickly as possible.”

The New York Times’s hotly anticipated college ranking has one thing in common with the invitation-only conference at which it was unveiled on Monday night: It’s mostly private.

The ranking—produced by the Times’s data-centric explainer unit, The Upshot—sorts roughly 100 colleges by the economic diversity of their student bodies. But on the list are only three public institutions: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (ranking third), the University of Virginia (tied for 49th), and the College of William & Mary (97th).

The source of the bias is that the list pulls from only one (well-publicized) slice of American higher education: the most selective institutions. Eligible to be included on the list were institutions with four-year graduation rates of 75 percent or better in the 2011-12 academic year. They were then ranked by a combination of two factors:

  1. Their share of freshmen receiving Pell Grants, averaged over 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14.
  2. Their average net price in 2012-13 for students coming from households with annual incomes of $30,000 to $48,000. (In its methodology section, the Times acknowledges the murky nature of the data.)

What emerges is the “College Access Index,” with the highest scores signifying the most economically diverse colleges. At the top of the pile? Vassar College, with a net price for middle-income students of $5,600, and an average Pell percentage of 23 percent.

“Our project is much more of an analysis than it is any attempt at a comprehensive ranking,” wrote David Leonhardt, head of The Upshot, in an email to The Chronicle last month.

Coupled with the list is an analysis of the correlation between the sizes of the colleges’ endowments and where they ended up on the Times’s index. “The biggest theme to emerge from our analysis is that otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity,” wrote Mr. Leonhardt in an article accompanying the list. “In this area, endowment is not destiny, and prestige is not destiny.”

But sweeping conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt because of the limits of the data set. J. Bernard Machen, president of the University of Florida, underscored that point at Monday night’s conference, according to a tweet by Zakiya Smith, strategy director at the Lumina Foundation:

To be sure, The Upshot and some of the college presidents it cited emphasized why elite colleges matter and should be held more accountable for the economic diversity of their student bodies. Not only do they play an outsize role in setting the national agenda, Mr. Leonhardt wrote, “the low-income students who enroll there tend to graduate.”

Also, he noted, research has shown that for upper-middle-class students, the particular college they attend may have little effect on earnings, “but it does seem to matter for poor students. They get something extra from a top college.”

Still, we couldn’t help but notice just how elite the ratings universe is, and what a small sliver of the higher-education system this index is focused on …

… or how the colleges recognized by the Times enroll relatively few students who receive Pell Grants (“number of institutions” refers to four-year campuses):

The list, limited as it is, serves as an answer to the much-hyped U.S. News & World Report ranking, which was released on Tuesday morning. A prominent critique of the U.S. News list is that it encourages colleges to change their policies and to allocate funds for the sole purpose of looking better in the eyes of the magazine’s metrics.

The magazine’s chief data strategist, Bob Morse, has noted, however, that elements like the economic diversity of the student body do factor into the overall ratings. Since 2008 U.S. News has also published a list showing the proportion of students with Pell Grants at more than 50 top colleges.

This year’s top national university? U.S. News said it was Princeton University, which tied for 34th in The Upshot’s analysis. And U.S. News’s best liberal-arts college? Williams College, which tied for 15th in the Times ranking.

Jonah Newman contributed to this article.

Correction (9/11/2014, 2:46 p.m.): This post originally misidentified J. Bernard Machen as a former president of the University of Florida. He is the institution’s current president, and the post has been updated accordingly.

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