The New York Times Unveils College Access Index

By Mark Walsh — September 09, 2014 3 min read
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The New York Times on Monday released its own ranking of top U.S. colleges and universities based on their enrollment and support of students from low-income backgrounds.

Topping the list were Vassar College, Grinnell College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Smith College, and Amherst College.

The College Access Index was developed by the Upshot blog of the Times, a politics and policy section. The index is a bit of a toe in the water of the controversial pool of college rankings, and it was released just hours before the undisputed leader—U.S. News & World Report—unveiled its latest lists of best colleges.

David Leonhardt, the managing editor of the Upshot, said the Times’ index was not seeking to rank most or all U.S. colleges and universities. The first index ranks only a subset of institutions with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent. There are only about 100 of those, and they tend to be selective, private colleges and universities, he said.

“Higher education is not playing the role of the escalator up the income ladder that it could,” Leonhardt said at the opening session of the TimesSchools for Tomorrow conference Monday evening at the newspaper’s conference center in midtown Manhattan (which I watched via video on the conference Web site.).

“One of the questions we asked here at the Times, and at the Upshot in particular, is how can we tell which colleges are talking about this but not doing that much about it, and how can we tell which colleges are talking a lot about it and doing something about it,” said Leonhardt, formerly an economics columnist and Washington bureau chief for the newspaper.

He explained in his remarks and in a methodology section that the Upshot took data from the U.S. Department of Education, supplemented by data from the colleges, though the data was not as detailed as the paper might have hoped.

The index is based on two categories. The first is the share of freshmen in the previous three academic years (2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14) who received federal Pell grants, which tends to represent families in the bottom 40 percent of income distribution in the country.

The second statistic in the index is the average net price paid for tuition, fees, and room and board in 2012-13 for students who came from households making between $30,000 and $48,000 a year, the Upshot explains in its methodology section.

Rounding out the top 10 on the index are Harvard University, Pomona College, St. Mary’s College of Indiana, Susquehana University, and Columbia University.

“Endowment is not destiny,” Leonhardt said. “Yes, Harvard is there,” but so are small institutions such as Grinnell and relative have-nots such as St. Mary’s.

“I know there are a lot of ways out there to look at colleges—U.S. News will be out tomorrow,” Leonhardt said. “What I think it is important to remember is that recruiting poor kids often hurts schools in some of these rankings. If you recruit low-income kids, it’s a dollar you can’t spend on a new building or program, the kinds of things that actually help in the rankings.”

After unveiling the index, Leonhardt introduced three leaders from U.S. higher education for a panel discussion, including Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar. Leonhardt said Hill was not informed in advance that her institution in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., would top the list.

“Our country has been founded on the notion of equal opportunity and economic and social mobility,” Hill said during the discussion. “If we don’t live up to that, I think we’re going to be living in a country we’re not very happy with. It’s not clear we’re living in a meritocracy. Already, really smart, talented low-income kids are being rejected from schools because of their financial need.”

Leonhardt suggested that the Upshot will continue to tinker with college-access data and do the index in some form again, though it wasn’t clear that he was aiming for something that has grown as big and perennial as the U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition.

(UPDATE 9:10 a.m.: Scott Jaschik of the Web publication Inside Higher Ed has an interesting analysis of the Times index.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.