US News rankings have never been my favorite part of higher education. For many years these rankings did little more than con colleges and universities into an illusory arms race under the guise of increasing educational quality. But recently US News has started to use their data, power, and influence to prod more useful conversations that might lead to improvements at higher education institutions. Last week, US News released their rankings for “Which top-ranked colleges operate most efficiently.” Like last year Augustana appeared near the top of the list among liberal arts colleges, suggesting that we apply our limited resources effectively to educate our students. Whether conversations about “efficiency” give you a warm fuzzy or a cold shudder, I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that such recognition is, at the very least, more good than bad.
But in keeping with their deified status in higher education, the US News rankings giveth and the US News rankings taketh away. A few weeks ago, they released another set of rankings that I found particularly intriguing given our recent campus discussions about equality and social justice. This set of rankings focused on the graduation rates of low-income students, and contrasted the proportion of low income students who ultimately graduate from each institution with each institution’s overall graduation rate. Based on these two numbers, US News identified colleges and universities that they called “top performers,” “over performers,” and “under performers.” Sadly, Augustana appeared in the under performer group with a 13 percentage point deficit between our overall six-year graduation rate (78%) and our six-year graduation rate of low-income students (65%). Just in case you’re wondering, these graduation rates come from students who entered college in the fall of 2007.
Because of the focused nature of this particular analysis, US News combined all institutions from their two national ranking categories (national universities and national liberal arts colleges) to create these three groups. The presence of several familiar institutions in each group suggests that there might be something to learn about graduating low-income students from other similar institutions that might in turn help us narrow our own disparity in graduation rates.
The criteria for the “top performer” category required that the institution’s overall graduation rate was above 80% and that the graduation rate of low-income students was the same (or within a percentage point). While there were numerous national liberal arts colleges on the list, they were generally highly ranked institutions with well known pedigrees. However, two familiar institutions appeared in this category that seemed worth highlighting.
- St. Olaf College – overall grad rate: 88%, low-income grad rate: 87%
- Gustavus Adolphus College – overall and low-income grad rate: 82%
The criteria for the “over performer” category was simply that low-income students graduated at a higher rate than the overall student population. There were several institutions in this group that are not too different from us, particularly based on their US News overall ranking (remember, Augustana was ranked #105 this year). These institutions include:
- Drew University (#99) – overall grad rate: 69%, low-income grad rate: 76%
- College of the Atlantic (#99) – overall grad rate: 69%, low-income grad rate: 75%
- Knox College (#81) – overall grad rate: 79%, low-income grad rate: 83%
- Lewis & Clark College (#77) – overall grad rate: 74%, low-income grad rate: 79%
- Beloit College (#61) – overall grad rate: 78%, low-income grad rate: 83%
Interestingly, there were also some institutions in the over performer group that probably wouldn’t dare to dream of a ranking approaching the top 100. In other words, they would probably trade their place for ours in a heartbeat. A few to note include:
- Oglethorpe University (#148) – overall grad rate: 62%, low-income grad rate: 67%
- Illinois College (#155) – overall grad rate: 64%, low-income grad rate: 68%
- Warren Wilson College (#165) – overall grad rate: 51%, low-income grad rate: 60%
- Ouachita Baptist University (#176) – overall grad rate: 60%, low-income grad rate: 80%
- Wisconsin Lutheran College (#178) – overall grad rate: 64%, low-income grad rate: 75%
Finally, the under performer group noted institutions where low-income students graduated at rates lower than the overall graduation rate. Some similar/familiar liberal arts colleges in this group included:
- Augustana College (#105) – overall grad rate: 78%, low-income grad rate: 65%
- Washington College (#105) – overall grad rate: 68%, low-income grad rate: 49%
- Hampden-Sydney College (#105) – overall grad rate 62%, low-income grad rate: 43%
- St. Mary’s College of Maryland (#89) – overall grad rate: 73%, low-income grad rate: 64%
- Wittenberg University (#139) – overall grad rate: 63%, low-income grad rate: 49%
- Alma College (#139) – overall grad rate: 61%, low-income grad rate: 44%
Although we ought to be careful not to jump to rash conclusions from this data alone, there are a couple of suppositions that this data seems to contradict. First, although the national graduation rates for low-income students consistently lag behind overall graduation rates, this is not necessarily so at every institution. Some institutions graduate low-income students at substantially higher rates than the the rest of their students. Second, it does not appear that institutional wealth, prestige, or academic profile guarantees graduation equity. There are institutions at both ends of the ranking spectrum that manage to graduate low-income students at a higher rate than the rest of their students. Third, geographical location doesn’t necessarily ensure success or failure. Successful institutions are located in both urban and rural locations.
I don’t know what makes each of these successful institutions achieve graduation equality. But in looking at our own disparity in graduation rates, it seems to me that we might learn something from these institutions that have found ways to graduate low-income students at rates similar to the rest of their students. We have set our own bar pretty high (our overall graduation rate of 78% is comparable or higher than all of the institutions I listed from the US News over performer category). Now it’s up to us to make sure that every student we enroll can clear that height. We shouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.
Make it a good day,