While Penn’s representation of low-income students has increased steadily over the years, its growth in economic diversity may not be happening as fast as some might like because of one factor: college rankings.
During a panel discussion about economic diversity at Penn on Nov. 22, English professor Peter Conn pointed to the “pernicious influence of the U.S. News and World Report [rankings]” as a factor that has prevented the University from achieving greater low-income representation among its student body.
Currently, U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of the nation’s top colleges does not directly take into account the economic diversity of an institution’s student population. Though broad categories like student selectivity, alumni-giving rates and faculty resources are used in the ranking methodology, low-income representation is not.
“Since the elite institutions are obliged to take this preposterous annual ritual [of college rankings] seriously — if only because alumni, trustees and potential applicants do — the admissions process is encouraged to look away from students of whatever economic background who might depress the numerical indicators of ‘quality,’” Conn said. “Low-income students will almost certainly fall disproportionately into this category.”
Conn added that college administrators should “absolutely insist” that U.S. News include in its methodology a separate category for economic diversity. As it stands now, he explained, schools like Penn are often unable to fully carry out their institutional goals of opportunity and access because those objectives are not considered by college rankings.
Conn’s frustration with the influence of the U.S. News rankings was part of what motivated him to write a column in the Penn Almanac in late September.
In the column — which prompted Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and Director of Student Financial Aid Bill Schilling to write a response in the Almanac — Conn used a set of data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education to argue that Penn needs to be doing a better job of recruiting and retaining low-income students.
Both pieces led to November’s panel, which drew a crowd of more than 100.
However, in response to the argument Conn made at the panel about the influence of college rankings, Penn President Amy Gutmann said the University “pays absolutely no attention at all in our admissions process to the U.S. News reports.”
“We do everything we can to recruit the most talented and economically diverse student body possible, and we’ve made significant progress there,” Gutmann said, adding that those efforts come “entirely independent of the rankings.”
Some, however, expressed doubt over Gutmann’s claims.
“A university administrator claiming that they don’t know or craft their decision-making around college rankings is like a teenage boy claiming that he doesn’t know what a teenage girl looks like,” said 1989 Graduate School of Education master’s degree recipient Steven Goodman, an educational consultant with Top Colleges. “It’s just not true.”
According to a report released in September by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, more than 95 percent of the organization’s college and high-school members believe U.S. News’ annual reports cause institutions to implement policies “primarily for the purpose of maintaining or strengthening [their] position in the rankings.”
Goodman added that it would “definitely” be useful for schools like Penn if U.S. News included a separate ranking category that addressed low-income representation.
Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, defended the ranking methodology. He explained that, while economic diversity is not considered explicitly as its own category, the annual rankings “do indirectly take into account” Pell Grant recipient totals when calculating a school’s score for “graduation rate performance.”
Pell Grants are widely considered to be an accurate gauge of the size of a school’s low-income student population.
For the organization’s 2012 rankings, graduation rate performance made up 7.5 percent of an institution’s total score, Morse said.
He added that in addition to Pell Grants, the category also took into account a variety of other factors that help predict a school’s expected graduation rate.
Despite competing views on the rankings, Gutmann said the issue of economic diversity at Penn remains one of great importance.
“There’s a big problem in our society with the correlation of economic excellence and educational success,” Gutmann said. “Here at Penn, we need to do our part to help change that.”
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