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Align rankings with access

The U.S. News & World Report should give colleges and universities points for low-income student enrollment

President Obama brought more than 100 college presidents to the White House last Thursday for a daylong summit promoting college access. At the summit, colleges pledged to improve opportunities for low-income students. Franklin & Marshall College committed to boost its financial aid budget by 10 percent; Yale promised to increase by 50 percent the number of low-income students admitted through the QuestBridge program (the University is also a QuestBridge partner school).

The University announced no new commitments to financial aid: the cuts to all-grant aid the Board of Visitors approved in the fall remain on the books. But Obama singled out the University for another initiative — one that is fairly low-cost but which might improve socioeconomic diversity at the school.

Obama praised an outreach strategy that the University has pledged to put in place to attract low-income Virginia students. The University plans to identify high-achieving, low-income high school students and send them personalized messages to help them better understand college costs and need-based financial aid.

Research by Economics Prof. Sarah Turner and Assistant Education Prof. Ben Castleman informs this approach. Turner has studied the reasons high-achieving, low-income teenagers choose not to attend top colleges, and Castleman’s research focuses on methods for supporting prospective first-generation students through the college application process. Castleman has argued that colleges can use text messaging to reach out to prospective low-income students who might need assistance or advice.

Initiatives such as the University’s go to show that accessibility efforts can come in multiple forms. The effective dissemination of information — about financial aid and application deadlines, for example — can do much to help low-income students surmount psychological and logistical barriers. Without a financial commitment to aid, communications-based efforts will only ever be marginally successful. But in tandem with a robust financial aid program, targeted outreach efforts can yield powerful results.

The White House summit extracted college-access commitments from 100 or so colleges. These commitments will improve prospects for a number of low-income students. What’s striking about the college-access initiatives is that schools are erecting these programs despite the many incentives to not help low-income students. Putting money toward financial aid is a long-term investment. It doesn’t yield immediate results: it takes longer to educate a person than to build a sports facility (most of the time, anyway). But it’s an investment worth making.

One way to incentivize colleges to increase opportunities for low-income students would be to incorporate low-income enrollment and financial aid into the U.S. News & World report college rankings. Currently, the much-touted rankings give schools no points for enrolling low-income students. On the contrary: a school that invests heavily in financial aid might spend less on activities that would boost its position in the rankings. And because retention is such an important factor in the rankings (weighted at 22.5 percent), and retention of low-income students is typically lower (the University has a six-year graduation rate of 93 percent for all students, 83 percent for low-income students), a school that admits fewer low-income students might improve its retention scores. Schools that admit fewer low-income students might also count more on alumni giving, which makes up 5 percent of the rankings.

Aligning college rankings — and thereby reputation — with access would be a powerful stimulus for colleges to reach out to low-income students. While we’re glad Obama is devoting attention to college affordability, efforts to attract high-achieving low-income students cannot move in fits and starts. An adjustment in rankings methodology would make it a matter of self-interest for colleges to do more for low-income students. Call us jaded, but we think that would spur broader and more lasting action than a presidential appeal.