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August 26, 2014 1:09 PM Making Elite Colleges More Affordable

By Ed Kilgore

There’s never been much specific attention paid in WaMo’s College Rankings to elite—and particularly private elite—colleges. After all, they’re the darlings of the whole world, and their all-important prestige is driven by the selectivity and self-investment on which the U.S. News ratings hegemony has set so high a priority. So we’ve largely left them to their mutual regard.

But in recent years it has become apparent that some elite institutions do take seriously a mission to attract a diverse student body, while others really don’t. So this year we’ve instituted an “affordable elite colleges” ranking that separates the meritocratic goats from the snooty sheep. As Robert Kelchen says in the description of the rankings:

We focused on the 224 most selective four-year colleges in our main rankings, with selectivity determined by a competitiveness score developed by Barron’s. We then rated the colleges on a 0-3 scale on a version of the same criteria we used to create our “Best Bang for the Buck” ranking, including the percent of students receiving Pell Grants, student loan default rates, six-year graduation rates, and the net price of attendance (the total cost of attending college less all grant aid received) for families making less than $75,000 per year.

Unsurprisingly, elite public colleges do very well in the rankings; four branches of the University of California (UCLA, UC-Berkeley, UC-Irvine and UC-San Diego) are in the top ten. But what’s more interesting is the divergence among elite private colleges, including the Ivies. Harvard’s second and Dartmouth’s fourth. But Princeton’s #30 and Yale’s #33. What makes that interesting is that Princeton and Yale have a larger endowment-to-student ratio than Harvard, but choose not to use it fully to attract lower-income students (Harvard has very deep discounts for those from middle-class families). There are some less-than-obvious reasons elite schools might want to invest in things other than equal educational opportunity, as noted by the New York Times Richard Perez-Pena yesterday:

The rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, and others, also play a major role. The rankings reward spending on facilities and faculty, but most pay little or no attention to financial aid and diversity.

Well, “others” doesn’t include WaMo.

“College presidents are under constant pressure to meet budgets, improve graduation rates and move up in the rankings,” [Georgetown University’s] Dr. Carnevale said. “The easiest way to do it is to climb upstream economically — get students whose parents can pay more.”

That is precisely the kind of thinking that entrenches privilege.

UPDATE: Vox’s Libby Nelson has more on the emdowment-hoarders.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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