College rankings rely on classist measurements

BY ALICIA WINOKUR '16

When the U.S. News and World Report put Mount Holyoke at number 36 on their list of Best Liberal Arts Colleges this year, what did they consider?

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in 2015 that the rankings are “based on such ‘neutral’ criteria as how selective a college is in its admissions, how much its alumni donate, how much money and other resources its faculty receive, and how much it spends per student.”

As Reich points out, colleges with a wealthy student body are favored by these criteria. Wealthy people graduate from top 20 institutions, they send their children to top 20 institutions, and the cycle continues.

When I look at what U.S. News considers for their criteria (what they call “Indicators”) and how much these categories are weighted, I can’t help but see classism undermining their scores. To base so much of school’s value on how much money it has and spends seems remiss.

22.5 percent of the score is based upon the percentage of students who stay after freshman year and students who graduate within six years — our retention rate is at 91 percent and our graduation rate at 85 percent. The top colleges this year boast closer to 100 percent in both categories. Good for them.

I can’t help but think that at those colleges, there are more students for whom finances are not a concern. Those who are able to take an extra semester if they fall behind or take time off. Students who don’t have to choose between insurmountable debt and continuing their education.

I think about friends I’ve had at the public university I transferred from and friends at Mount Holyoke who had to drop out when financial aid didn’t stretch far enough or who left to work so their families could survive.

Mount Holyoke students receive more aid than students attending the top five colleges on the list; compare our 65 percent who receive aid to the 49 to 63 percent at the schools topping the list: Williams College, Amherst College, Wellesley College, Middlebury College and Swarthmore College. 

Consider socioeconomic diversity when 69 percent of Mount Holyoke students took out loans compared to students in the top five colleges on the list — only 25 to 49 percent of students at the aforementioned top five schools.

It could be that because the top five schools give more money to students who need financial aid, fewer students need to take out loans. Realistically, it seems more likely that many of those students never needed to worry about loans in the first place.

What these lists ignore is the importance of socioeconomic diversity in colleges. It does a disservice to the world to educate only those who have been able to afford it generation after generation. To reward wealthy students by reinforcing their elitism also does harm to those who don’t have libraries named after their grandfathers.

Time and again, I would rather go to a college that has programs like Posse and Frances Perkins and gives financial aid to international transfer students. We all know a bill from Mount Holyoke is not a small one, but I am proud to have gone to a school that makes concerted efforts to give opportunities to students who may otherwise not have the ability to go to college.

Despite the deep pockets of other colleges, I do believe our school is a hidden gem. Rather than wring our hands about our position on a list that can only quantify value in terms of a school’s bank account, we should pride ourselves on being number five on the Princeton Review’s list of schools with the Best Classroom Experience. 

My Jewish Studies class had eight students, a huge bonus when Professor Fine brought us hamantaschen for Purim. Even with 50 students filling in seats, my memories of sociology class are of one-on-one talks with Professor Malacarne in his office going over topics for papers.

These experiences are harder to replicate at larger colleges and universities, and especially at schools where the focus is on graduate-level research or where prestige is valued to the point of inflating grades. 

Of the women’s colleges on the U.S. News list, we are the second smallest at 2,126 students. None of the other women’s colleges on that list rank on the Best Classroom Experience list. It is important to note that the Princeton Review bases its rankings on student surveys rather than how much money a school has.

I have heard people say that our ranking on the U.S. News list is a sign that Mount Holyoke is a sinking ship, that we are a second-tier school, that they feel inferior to other women’s colleges. To them, I would say they chose this school for the wrong reasons if what they wanted was to boast about being high on a list of colleges full of students with parents in a high tax bracket.

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