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Apples & Oranges

Who could possibility be against social mobility rankings?

In recent years — at least in the higher-ed policy wonk space — they have become the answer to every conversation about rankings and metrics and outcomes. What we need, the argument goes, is to focus on which colleges are really creating opportunity to move students from lower rungs on our economic hierarchy to higher ones.

So the headline on Brendan Cantwell’s essay in The Chronicle this week is destined to get attention: Against Social-Mobility Rankings.

Oh, the associate professor of education at Michigan State University isn’t against social mobility. He’s not a monster. But he does think these rankings are a bit misguided.

And they get a ton of attention. In just the last two weeks, a new Third Way report came out “rating higher-ed by economic mobility” and the Carnegie Classification announced it was going to make adjustments to reflect social and economic mobility.

It’s true that many of Cantwell’s critiques apply to other ways we rank colleges — not just social mobility — but given that they get so much attention, here’s what he thinks is wrong with this endeavor:

Such rankings suggest colleges “cause” social mobility. But local conditions create much of the context that allows for a college degree to pay off.

“Economic activity in big, diverse cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas means the efforts of learners and faculty and staff in places like CUNY and Cal State can see a return in the form of social mobility.”

Cantwell wrote that he doesn’t want to minimize the contributions made at places that rank highly on the lists:

“I am, however, recognizing that broad-access institutions lower on the list might see less mobility because of where they are located rather than poor institutional performance.”

I reached out to him to ask whether any sort of ranking of colleges is folly.

It’s complicated, he said. “I see nothing inherently wrong with collecting and analyzing these data,” he told me. “In fact, this sort of data can be very useful for transparency and accountability.”

  • Salary data can fight against pay inequity
  • Disaggregating graduation rates by race might show groups a college is not serving well.

But very quickly, we just can’t help it: We’re going to assign an ordinal number. That transforms this data into something altogether different — a ranking. And maybe without really meaning to, we’ve created an incentive to make decisions that change the rank. Cantwell told me: “Metrics that become targets, which rankings generally do, encourage thinking outside of context and simple explanations where a more complex one is needed.”

So what to do instead? In his Chronicle essay, Cantwell makes a couple of suggestions:

  • We know broad-access public colleges drive mobility, he says. So let’s push more investment to them — regardless of “fine distinctions in institutional mobility scores.”
  • Flogging rich private colleges for low-mobility rankings isn’t going to do anything, he says. Instead create leverage, like linking the ability to compete for federal research grants to enrolling more low-income students.

Maybe, I suggested, we just need to make sure these rankings are comparing similar institutions. That’s part of an argument we make regularly over here — that the 4,000 or so American “colleges” are so fundamentally different that talking about them as a group is rarely enlightening.

Cantwell agreed that comparison is key to understanding, but that’s way harder than it might seem. The context is so different.

“Yes, one big problem with rankings is that they are comparing apples to oranges,” he told me. “But deciding which fruits are the same type of apple and which fruits are the same type of orange is challenging to say the least. Can we rank mandarin oranges against naval oranges? Perhaps, but maybe they should be considered two different fruits.”

— Scott Smallwood

+ A good thread from Cecilia Orphan pushing back on some of Cantwell’s arguments.

++ More from Paul Fain in The Job about the Carnegie change and how it fits into the broader ROI debate.

Watch Molly on MSNBC

Molly Minta, our reporter with Mississippi Today, appeared on MSNBC last Friday to talk about her reporting from inside Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory. Watch the segment here.

+ Read Molly’s story.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

‘A change in narrative’: Ethnic studies program helps incarcerated youth navigate identity
‘A change in narrative’: Ethnic studies program helps incarcerated youth navigate identity “We as a discipline are dedicated to serving the public,” said Amy Sueyoshi, dean of ethnic studies at San Francisco State, which has launched a program inside California’s youth prisons. “It’s basically sort of the way we view the world, that our curriculum needs to be accessible and relevant to all communities who want a college degree.”

In College Inside: Calls for college for incarcerated youth. Several states, including New Jersey, Utah, and California, have made efforts to increase access to higher ed for incarcerated young people. The need partly stems from recent juvenile justice reforms that allow young adults to stay in youth facilities for longer.

In Colorado: Colorado lawmakers may expand program that gives college credit in high school. The proposal calls for eliminating both a 500-student enrollment cap on the program and the requirement that students pay districts if they fail or drop out of classes.

In El Paso: U. of Texas at El Paso adjuncts to receive $500 one-time payment after news of full-time faculty bonus. The new directive comes after President Heather Wilson announced a $1,200 one-time merit payment to faculty and staff who qualified for university benefits. That payment did not include some adjunct professors.

In Indiana: It’s time for colleges to prove their value, Indiana leader says. The colleges that will survive “will resist the temptation for incremental change,” said the state’s higher education commissioner, “but rather embrace the reality that students — young and older — will expect a dramatically different system of learning and ways of showing their competence.”

In Mile Markers: A new compass for supporting rural. Why the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges’ new metric to identify rural-serving institutions matters.

In Work Shift: Measuring the ‘Great (Degree) Reset’. Employers loosened degree requirements in a substantial number of occupations in the years before the pandemic—and the trend has continued, according to a new analysis from the Burning Glass Institute.

In latitude(s): Expanded benefits for international students in research-competition bill. The U.S. House is stepping on the gas when it comes to legislation aimed at bolstering American competitiveness in science and research.

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