Little Berea College in Central Kentucky doesn’t make a big splash in U.S. News & World Report’s wildly popular college rankings: It comes in at a respectable 75th among national liberal arts colleges.
But in the Washington Monthly’s new guide to the nation’s Top 30 Liberal Arts Colleges, Berea ranks third.
Different list; different priorities. U.S. News puts emphasis on things like incoming freshmen grade point averages and SAT scores, and a low acceptance rate. Washington Monthly is concerned with academic rigor as well. For example, it looks at the percentage of graduates that go on to earn PhDs. But it also considers an institution’s commitment to public service “both in the way they teach and in encouraging students to enter service-focused careers.”
And, perhaps most important, while U.S. News, in effect, rewards schools for keeping students out with tough admissions criteria that favor the affluent, Washington Monthly cites those that open their doors to low-income students and help them graduate. And Berea, founded by abolitionists in the mid-19th century, makes that goal paramount. Nearly 53 percent of new freshmen come from families where neither parent has a college degree. Ninety-nine percent are eligible for federal Pell Grants. No one pays tuition.
At a Washington, D.C., forum this week called “2013 College Rankings and Higher Education’s New Caste System,” a Texas college president, journalists from the Washington Monthly and elsewhere, and a key Obama administration aide, among others, talked about the need for more colleges like Berea.
Unfortunately, the trend is in the other direction, with colleges and universities becoming what Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris called “drivers of inequality.”
Hence the so-called “caste” system in higher education, where strong middle- and upper-class students go to top private colleges, and, increasingly, money-conscious state universities, and low-income students go to low-cost open access or community colleges — or to no college at all.
Last month, President Obama said the administration will create a “college scoreboard” to help students decide how best to spend their college money and to guide the government in directing student aid.
“Higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America,” Obama told about 7,000 students at the University of Buffalo. “If we don’t do something about keeping it within reach, it will create problems for economic mobility for generations to come.”
The issue is just as critical for K-12 school systems, which are trying with the Common Core State Standards and other reforms to give all high school graduates a shot at postsecondary education or specialized training for 21st century jobs. If college becomes even harder for many to afford, that goal cannot be realized.
The Obama administration’s plan is controversial, with critics arguing that the federal government should not be in the business of evaluating colleges.
“What confidence do you have that you can put out data that won’t be gamed by universities?” asked one participant at the forum, which was held at the New America Foundation.
James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, said the purpose is not to punish universities — which will be rated in various categories, not ranked in specific order – but to drive down costs so that more people will be able to enter the middle class
“We want to reward institutions for enrolling students — especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds — and helping them succeed,” Kvaal said.
One institution that has been doing this for many years is the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). When Diana Natalicio became UTEP’s president in 1981, the university’s enrollment did not reflect the demographics of El Paso’s predominately Latino community. Local high school students were regarded as non-college material or even liabilities.
Natalicio changed that by reaching out to residents in the region (on both sides of the Mexican border) while seeking more grant funding to turn UTEP into a major research university.
She was not without her critics, including those who mocked her with bumper stickers calling UTEP “Harvard on the border.”
Since 1988, UTEP’s annual research expenditures have grown from $6 million to $80 million per year, and its annual budget from $65 million to $400 million. Enrollment has grown during her tenure from 14,971 to more than 22,700 students, 77 percent of whom are Mexican-American.
UTEP’s experience shows that access and excellence can — indeed must — go hand-in-hand.
“Without excellence,” Natalicio said, “access becomes a promise to be broken.”