In that sense, these indices envision themselves as altruistic tools that hold colleges accountable for the degree to which they act as conduits of opportunity. “College administrators wouldn’t phrase it this way,” Leonhardt wrote, “yet [the ones with low economic diversity] are essentially deciding that economic diversity matters less than other priorities—like sports teams, new buildings, and some low-enrollment academic programs.”
Leonhardt’s index differs from The Washington Monthly’s national-universities guide in some key ways. The former’s listing is somewhat exclusive to elite, high-performing schools (those where 75 percent of students graduate within five years), while the latter looks at three categories, including the percentage of Pell grant recipients enrolled, research prowess, and students’ involvement in or pursuit of public service. In a blog post last year, the Monthly writer Ed Kilgore highlighted Leonhardt’s focus on high-performing schools, comparing what was then his brand-new index to the magazine’s 2014 “Affordable Elites” subcategory. Perhaps in response, Leonhardt tweaked his algorithm this year, increasing the 75-percent graduation-rate cutoff from four to five years and effectively expanding the list to include more public universities.
Partly as a result of Leonhardt’s adjustment, the two indices have one particularly striking commonality this year: they each have the University of California holding a huge proportion of the top spots. Six of The Upshot’s top 10 are UC schools (none of which even made it onto the list last year because of the graduation-rate criterion), while UC campuses occupy four of the top 10 spots on the Monthly’s listing of national universities. Notably, the three UC schools that got top rankings in both lists—its flagship Berkeley campus, San Diego, and UCLA—are also the system’s most selective.
Both news outlets give kudos to the University of California for focusing on achievement that matters. Despite excelling in high-school classes and on the SAT, relatively few poor students who perform well academically apply to and succeed in selective colleges. This is, as Leonhardt has noted, as much of an economic dilemma for society at large as it is an injustice for the individuals affected—a revelation that has prompted initiatives to ramp up income-based equality at colleges.
The bent toward affluent students at selective colleges, including those with notably hefty endowments, has remained one of American higher education’s most egregious shortcomings. For example, the University of Virginia, a public institution, has received widespread criticism for not doing enough to recruit economically disadvantaged students, despite its $213,000 per-student endowment and creation of diversity-focused administrative initiatives. This year, it placed 102nd out of 179 on The Upshot’s index, sandwiched between other elite schools known for being cost-prohibitive, such as Bryn Mawr and Notre Dame. (Interestingly, it was ranked 63rd out of 279 on the Monthly’s list.) The socioeconomic status quo in higher ed helps explain why upward mobility, as Leonhardt wrote last year, has become all but a facade in a country that’s supposed to be a place where dreams come true.