College Leaders Have the Wrong Incentives

If we want university presidents to safeguard the well-being of their communities, we need to change the way they’re evaluated.

Graduation caps
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Janet Frick, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, isn’t happy about her institution’s plans for the fall term. As confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus swell to record highs in the state, which reopened most businesses in May, its public institutions of higher education are pressing forward with aggressive return-to-campus plans. In particular, Frick is shocked that the University System of Georgia (USG), the body that oversees the state’s 26 public institutions, appears to have pressured its member institutions into not requiring masks in buildings and classrooms, despite the fact that they are high-risk environments for transmission, and that masks can reduce that transmission substantially.

She’s not alone. Thousands of students, faculty, parents, and other interested parties have signed a petition demanding that Georgia’s state colleges and universities require masks—and that they not prevent students or faculty from working remotely this fall.

The agitation has garnered some attention, but generated few results so far. Confusion has escalated to anger. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a USG member where I am a tenured professor, some faculty feel betrayed by a drive to return that seems both unconcerned with their welfare and likely to reduce the quality of instruction. Residential students are organizing against housing contracts that seem to prohibit cancellation until after teaching plans are finalized, and international students are expressing feelings of abandonment as visa and travel restrictions bear down on them. Elsewhere in the state and across the nation, faculty and students feel as if they are fighting against their own institutions, which want to pretend everything is normal, rather than collaborating to figure out how to manage the fact that it is not.

In part, that’s because campus leaders’ incentives don’t align with those of their communities. College executives are worried about the economic costs of students who don’t enroll or who won’t pay for housing. At public institutions such as the University of Georgia, presidents and provosts are also playing games of political chicken with their state system, legislature, and governor. At rural ones, such as Amherst and Penn State, the decisions campuses make about the fall could save or destroy the college towns in which they are located. Rather than facing the difficult choices the situation demands, many of these leaders are hiding under the cover of realpolitik, hoping that rising case counts will make decisions for them. Others are cowering behind fantasies. They can do so because they have little incentive to do otherwise.

That got Frick thinking: What incentives do perk the ears of university leaders? One of them is college rankings, especially the annual U.S. News & World Report roundup of “best colleges.” Parents and prospective students rely on the guide when considering colleges, as do presidents and trustees when they’re jockeying for professional station relative to “peer” and “aspirational” institutions. Some even build raising their rankings into their strategic plans, or tie improvements to executive bonuses. If public safety and community wellness won’t move campus leaders, maybe the rankings would, she reasoned.

So Frick and her University of Georgia colleagues created a spreadsheet that compared policies at state flagship campuses across the nation. “After compiling the data, we all kind of stared at it and realized, there’s something wildly out of sync,” Frick told me. They found that among the top 20 public universities, a list that includes UCLA, the University of Virginia, and the University of Michigan, only two did not have some provision to require masks in classrooms: Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. The finding turned some heads. “That’s when public discussion of COVID-reopening plans went from being a passing curiosity to an urgent matter of community safety and academic integrity,” she said.

The incentives that motivate collegiate leaders, and the ways in which their performance is evaluated, clash with the needs of campuses and their constituents. The urgency that has erupted around the coronavirus and antiblack racism this year should inaugurate a new era in evaluating college success, one in which schools are measured not based on their wealth, but on the virtues they embody in their operations, and on the justice they achieve within their communities.

The absurdity of a numerical ranking mechanism for colleges becomes apparent the moment you look at how U.S. News calculates it. The methodology reads like a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet: 8 percent for class size; 10 percent for high-school-class standing; 4.4 percent for first-to-second-year student retention, and so on.

The fantasy of rationalism notwithstanding, there is evidence that adding measures of equity to the rankings can have some positive effect. In 2018, U.S. News started measuring “social mobility,” a score it ascribes to the performance of recipients of Pell Grants, a government award for students with exceptional financial need. That change helped UC Riverside move up 39 spots that year, thanks in part to 56 percent of its student body receiving the grants. But overall, the change has had limited impact. The same wealthy schools still come out on top: Harvard, Williams College, UC Berkeley, and so on. That’s partly because the social-mobility metric accounts for only 5 percent of the total ranking, while other changes have offset the benefit of measuring Pell performance in the first place.

Instead, the ranking is mostly a proxy for wealth and reputation. Twenty percent of it comes from “expert opinion,” which is typically collated from surveys of college presidents, provosts, and other executives who rank their supposed peers. This further rewards schools with the best reputations, while also encouraging school leaders to form self-aggrandizing cartels. And 7.75 percent of the ranking comes from standardized test scores (the SAT and ACT), exams that reward the wealthy students whose families can afford tutoring for them and penalize black, Hispanic, and Latino students in particular. Other measures are directly of wealth: 10 percent from per-student spending; 7 percent from faculty salaries; 5 percent from alumni giving. Together, that’s almost 50 percent of the calculation amplifying received benefits. Georgia Tech’s president, Ángel Cabrera, summarized the situation in a panel at last year’s Aspen Ideas Festival: “The more students we choose not to help, the higher our prestige goes.”

And so, campus leaders have pursued the activities that would eke out more dollars: donations for new buildings to offer more expenditure per student; increased selectivity for admissions via grades and test scores; endowments to lure famous professors to pay higher salaries, who then win research grants to attract graduate students, who can serve as teaching assistants to reduce class sizes. From the perspective of an ambitious college dean or president, COVID-19 might look like just another irritating diversion from accomplishing those goals, few of which would be affected one way or another by a public-health crisis.

Yet campuses are poised to host massive outbreaks. Young adults are the drivers of new surges of infections, especially across the Sun Belt. Traditional-age college students may be at lower risk of serious complications from COVID-19, but they are still vectors for transmission to the rest of the campus community, including older and more vulnerable faculty and staff. Athletic programs that returned for summer practice have already experienced outbreaks, and yet many schools have no plans to test their student population upon arrival.

The old and frail aren’t the only ones at risk, either. Not all college students are young adults, and not all young adults are without health conditions that would put them at risk of serious illness or death from the novel coronavirus. Many more could bring the disease home to family or to citizens in the local community. And the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2, even in asymptomatic cases, are both scary and still largely unknown; some now think the disease might trigger the onset of diabetes. The increased risk of hospitalization and death among black, Hispanic, Latino, and indigenous people means that treating college students as safe solely because of their age is also likely to have a racially disparate impact.

Beyond the metrics rolled up into rankings, the incentives that do motivate universities are also mostly material, not moral: worries about loss of revenue from students, parents, and state governments. At private schools in particular, the high cost of college may feel misaligned with online learning to many of those who are paying the tuition bills, even if biting the bullet of a virtual semester might help campus life return in the spring. And public institutions, which have seen state support slashed in recent decades, have good reason to preserve enrollments and thereby the flow of funds into state coffers. At Georgia Tech, a PowerPoint slide about assigning classes for the fall listed “protect the health of faculty, staff, and students” as the fourth bullet in a list of goals, just under “provide a quality first-year experience.”

Despite all this, plans to curtail the coronavirus’s spread while maintaining anything resembling campus life amount mostly to magical thinking. Writing in The New York Times, a Temple University psychology professor called them delusional. Scott Galloway, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, has speculated that college presidents will cave and go virtual in the end, but he thinks they’re waiting until deposits and tuition payments arrive.

If they don’t, outbreaks and deaths on campus would surely stir up storms of blame for the leaders who run those institutions. In theory, colleges could face liability for gross negligence (some are even trying to disclaim liability). But for now, such worries are rationalized against local or state averages. The sentiment that nowhere is without risk has become a mainstay among recent campus communications. Less so, the duty to minimize the risk.

If Americans must rank institutions of higher education numerically, the least they could do is base that ranking on something more important than money. After all, COVID-19 isn’t the only moral crisis on campus. For example, the racial and ethnic composition of the student body and faculty at American institutions remains out of sync with the general U.S. population, and often with the local or regional population of particular schools as well. Schools may also harbor atmospheres of institutional discrimination and harassment.

Additionally, many campuses are bastions of economic inequality. American higher education has become a caste system for faculty, in which the lucky few enjoy permanent, tenured jobs while three-quarters are untenured and more than half, on average, are “adjuncts”—temporary teachers paid, barely, on a per-class basis. The result can be catastrophic for both faculty and their students. The U.S. News ranking does account for the proportion of faculty who are full-time, but only as 1 percent of the overall measure, and in a way that can exclude adjuncts’ low pay from the faculty salary calculation, too. And for students, the skyrocketing cost of higher education has made earning a degree a struggle for all but the wealthiest families.

COVID-19 won’t last forever, or so we hope. Even if the virus persists as a long-term human affliction, there is confidence that treatments, vaccines, and other methods will help manage it. The “novel” coronavirus will cease to be so novel, and its immediate impact on daily life will abate.

But colleges and universities will still have to address a variety of threats and injustices, and should be held accountable for how they choose to do so.

College rankings are bad. They fan the flames of economic inequality, reinforce a Matthew effect in educational opportunity, and degrade the civic function of higher education. It is never possible to capture evanescent properties like educational quality, let alone equity, with metrics shoehorned into statistical models. In 2005, Washington Monthly launched its own rankings, seeking to evaluate universities based on their contribution to the public good. It is not as influential as the U.S. News ranking, and it still tries to boil racial, economic, and medical justice down to a “score.” But if colleges must be scored, then let us judge them based on the justice they produce, not just the wealth they accrue. That would motivate their leaders to make real progress, and not just to pay lip service to these goals so the fundraising and test-score boosting can continue.

The obsession of many college leaders with preserving or improving campus metrics, rather than human lives, is a disgrace. The coronavirus offers these leaders an opportunity to demonstrate an actual commitment to social welfare and justice. That will be a difficult change for college presidents, provosts, deans, and other executives. They will have to redirect resources and revise goals. They will have to fight new battles with trustees, boards, and chancellors. They will have to stick their necks out; some might risk getting fired. But that’s what leaders are paid to do.