College Rankings Foster Socioeconomic Disparity

The annual spate of college and university rankings is sweeping the country. I was in four airports in the last two days, and each of the airport magazine stores posted their "College Rankings" magazines front and center in these stores.

Does Stanford top Harvard or USC surge past Duke? All seem to be vying for No. 1, as if for an athletic conference championship. Insignificant changes in the rankings among elite institutions often make the headline news in national media. This, I believe, raises false perceptions among parents and policy makers alike about the veracity and the realities of rankings, and further contributes to the growing income disparity between the wealthy and those of modest means.

Of course, parents want the very best for their children. I want the same for my two college-age children. However, the ratings seem to encourage many parents and their college-bound children to apply only to top-tier institutions with the misguided belief that the more highly an institution is ranked, the better the quality of its academic and co-curricular offerings and opportunities. The fallacy is that every child is an individual with different aspirations, skills, and abilities. The colleges that are best for my own daughters may very well not be the best one for yours. The most important factor in determining the "best" college for every student is how well institution's mission, academic programs, size, styles of teaching, and campus culture match and meet the needs of each student.

Rankings also lead policy makers down several dangerous paths. Ratings and rankings tend to drive the perception that the most important of America's colleges and universities reside at the top of the list. That is simply untrue. When the quality of scholarship, research, and teaching are all considered, the first-tier institutions may be exemplary. Yet do they produce largest share of the women and men who develop, work in, and lead the nation's small businesses that in aggregate employ millions; the engineers that innovate new products and processes that drive our global economy, the teachers who educate our children, and the nurses and doctors and law enforcement officers and emergency service workers without whom our society could not function? Those vital roles are filled by graduates of the vast majority of the nation's universities like mine.

Worse yet, is a potential proclivity for members of state legislatures and Congress to believe in what I call "trickle-down" education. The false belief is that the cream of America's universities with the largest endowments offers the finest educations in the land. Others mistakenly believe that and if only the rest of us were to emulate these "elite institutions," all of our universities would prosper too. Trickle-down education is the corollary of "trickle-down" economics. We know how well that works. Innovation in education is often driven by necessity, and nowhere in higher education is necessity more demanding than at institutions with modest resources and rankings.

I worry that the decline in public state and federal funding for higher education accelerates the gap between citizens of wealth and those with much more modest resources. In fact, between 1979 to 2007 after-tax income growth has decreased for 80 percent of the country's households, according the Congressional Budget Office. And, among the top 20 percent of earners, most saw no growth at all. Only the top 1 percent saw real growth in after-tax income... and, it was dramatic.

The time frame for these data suggest that the nation may be shifting back toward the philosophy that governed support for higher education in the years that led to the Great Depression, namely that going to college was only for the rich. One only has to look at the impact of the G.I. Bill, through which millions of veterans were able to earn their degrees. The G.I. Bill gave support to many who now constitute the middle class, ushered in 25 years of general prosperity that was shared by virtually all, and finally opened the door to civil rights. It was a enormous infusion of federal investment in the country's most precious resource, its citizens, and it paid off handsomely.

I encourage our policy makers and future college students and their parents to resist the false security of the college rating "treadmill." We should all come to the understanding that the only way to restore America's prosperity and reverse the decline in real income experienced by most families is through a significant reinvestment in education from Head Start through higher education. It is important that we, college and university presidents, demonstrate to students, parents, and the citizenry at large that the return on public and private investment in higher education is critical to the future prosperity for all.

Devorah Lieberman is president of the University of La Verne.