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College Rankings — A Function of Wealth and Privilege

By Ellie H. Ashby, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ellie H Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column "From Houston to Harvard" runs on alternate Fridays.

There is no greater financial mystery than Harvard’s endowment. However, conversations surrounding the endowments of elite institutions so far have been housed within the bounds of that institution — is it moral for a university to have that much money, what are they doing with that money? But this focus on the internal distorts the dialogue surrounding endowment, college rankings, and privilege, a much more complex conversation that involves deconstructing the supposed binary of the North having exceptional institutions of higher education and the South lacking them.

Harvard's endowment has increased from $41.9 billion to $53.2 billion in the span of a single year. Yale, MIT, Duke, and other wealthy universities announced similar to even greater returns on their own endowments. These values are so large that we grow desensitized to their financial scope; but, one look at the endowments of other universities, like historically Black colleges and universities (which are primarily concentrated in the South), brings to light the larger, cyclical theme of privilege and wealth disparities in higher education.

This concept of financial disparities in higher education between the North and South is beautifully explicated in the podcasts “Lord of the Rankings” and “Project Dillard” from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.

A quick synopsis of these podcasts: Gladwell investigates the college ranking algorithm of U.S. News & World Report and finds that one of the biggest factors in determining a college or university’s position in the ranking is something called the “peer assessment” score. This score essentially has no academic grounds and is determined solely by the numerical ranking other university presidents, provosts, and heads of admissions at a comparative university give another university.

Gladwell finds that the vast majority of university leaders have no true knowledge of how to rank other universities, as they cannot adequately judge an institution they are not a part of. So, what many university leaders do is use their “gut feelings” to dictate the quality of another institution, done so on a simple one-to-five scale, with an option of “no response.”

Already, the way the largest determinant factor of the college ranking system is decided is questionable, but more questionable are the four variables that were found to predict 91.3 percent of the peer assessment score. These variables are: the size of an institution’s endowment, the percentage of students that are white, the percentage of students that receive Pell grants, and how much tuition costs.

The peer assessment score is a quantifiable value of reputation, and this score of reputation is a function of wealth. Endowment alone predicts roughly half of this peer assessment score, so for schools with big endowments, this is an ideal system. They are seen as even more reputable and prestigious with billions of dollars in private equity and hedge funds, which then turns into a consistently high peer assessment score and ranking in the U.S. News & World Report, but the immense wealth of these institutions cannot be divorced from the systematic financial disenfranchisement of HBCUs.

HBCUs are exceptional institutions of higher education that primarily serve a historically marginalized population in the United States; they have played and play a fundamental role in both our nation’s history and our future. In fact, while HBCUs make up only 3 percent of universities and colleges in the United States, they produce, according to UNCF, “almost 20 percent of all African American graduates and 25 percent of African American graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” They are renowned for their experiential and hands-on learning and how many judges, teachers, and doctors they have produced, all characteristics one would expect from a top-tier institution of higher education.

But, these universities and colleges are continuously excluded from the top spots of the college ranking system, largely because they fail to check the boxes and wealth and race that the U.S. News & World Report algorithm requires. For example, HBCUs do not have large endowments; in fact, in 2021, the cumulative HBCU endowment is $2 billion, a mere 4 percent of Harvard’s endowment alone. This negatively impacts how many students HBCUs are able to serve; the ability to provide financial support to students is largely determined by the size of an institution’s endowment, meaning that HBCUs, though their impact is unmatched, struggle to provide the same financial aid that institutions like Harvard and Williams are able to provide.

The entire college ranking system is a function of wealth that disenfranchises institutions that serve systematically marginalized communities (HBCUs) and elevates institutions (via the college rankings algorithm) that admit white, wealthy students.

The college ranking system upholds a system of wealth and white privilege, and it will take a recalibration of educational priorities to undo it. Rather than a peer assessment score that upholds the U.S. News & World Report rankings as a function of wealth, college rankings should begin to reflect the quality of education by deemphasizing variables like endowment, tuition, and other markers of affluence. Hyperfocusing on wealth as the determinate of the “best” institutions of higher education actively upholds a system that disenfranchises HBCUs and any institution that does not pander to the white and the wealthy.

Ellie H Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column "From Houston to Harvard" runs on alternate Fridays.

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