An­other wave of col­lege re­form is com­ing.

The new col­lege rank­ings re­flect a grow­ing em­pha­sis on so­cial mo­bil­ity, says jour­nal­ist Paul Glas­tris

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @glas­tris Paul Glas­tris is ed­i­tor in chief of the Wash­ing­ton Monthly.

Ever since it de­clared it­self ar­biter of col­lege ex­cel­lence 35 years ago, U.S. News & World Re­port has ranked schools based on mea­sures of wealth, fame and ex­clu­siv­ity. But when this year’s list was un­veiled Mon­day, it fea­tured a sur­pris­ing new met­ric: “so­cial mo­bil­ity,” de­fined by the mag­a­zine as “how well schools suc­ceed at en­rolling and grad­u­at­ing stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies.”

This was seen as a big deal be­cause the mag­a­zine’s rank­ings from the start have re­flected the op­po­site val­ues. By fo­cus­ing on fac­tors like SAT scores, spend­ing per stu­dent, alumni giv­ing and sur­veys of peer in­sti­tu­tional lead­ers, the rank­ings have long cre­ated in­cen­tives for col­lege pres­i­dents ea­ger for bet­ter U.S. News scores to raise prices, com­pete for sta­tus and mar­ket them­selves to the chil­dren of the af­flu­ent. In this way, U.S. News has been both a driver and a val­ida­tor of an in­creas­ingly elit­ist and dys­func­tional Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

As a long­time critic of U.S. News’s method­ol­ogy, I’m de­lighted that the mag­a­zine has come around, even if the weight it gives to its so­cial mo­bil­ity met­rics is far less than it ought to be (the Wash­ing­ton Monthly, the mag­a­zine I edit, first be­gan rank­ing col­leges by so­cial mo­bil­ity 13 years ago). But in this in­stance, U.S. News is less a driver in higher ed­u­ca­tion than a mir­ror. There has long been a ten­sion be­tween in­sti­tu­tions that were founded (and of­ten pre­fer) to serve a se­lect few and the de­mands of our democ­racy. Th­ese ten­sions have led to two great waves of change to­ward egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. U.S. News’s move is strong ev­i­dence that a third wave is un­der­way.

The first be­gan in 1862, when Pres­i­dent Abraham Lin­coln signed the Mor­rill Act, cre­at­ing the land-grant col­lege sys­tem. Un­til then, most Amer­i­can col­leges taught clas­si­cal lan­guages and the Bi­ble to bud­ding cler­gy­men and the sons of the pros­per­ous. The Mor­rill Act gave mil­lions of acres of fed­eral land to states to de­velop or sell for the build­ing of uni­ver­si­ties that would “pro­mote the lib­eral and prac­ti­cal ed­u­ca­tion of the in­dus­trial classes” through the study of agri­cul­tural and me­chan­i­cal sci­ence. This led to the found­ing or ex­pan­sion of such flag­ships as the Univer­sity of Illi­nois, the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin and Ohio State. (An­other act was passed in 1890 to in­clude the South­ern states that had been in re­bel­lion when the first act passed.)

The sec­ond wave of egal­i­tar­ian re­form be­gan dur­ing World War II, when Congress passed the GI Bill. Though lead­ers of elite col­leges feared the prospect of hordes of for­mer soldiers de­scend­ing on their in­sti­tu­tions — Robert May­nard Hutchins, the Univer­sity of Chicago pres­i­dent, fa­mously warned that the bill would cre­ate “in­tel­lec­tual hobo jun­gles” — the leg­is­la­tion proved a huge suc­cess. It pro­vided mil­lions of re­turn­ing vet­er­ans with col­lege ed­u­ca­tions and helped cre­ate the world’s first mass mid­dle class. That sec­ond wave con­tin­ued with the 1963 Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Fa­cil­i­ties Act, which funded the ex­pan­sion of cam­puses and the cre­ation of new ones — es­pe­cially com­mu­nity col­leges — to ac­com­mo­date the large baby boom gen­er­a­tion, and the 1965 Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Act, which, for the first time, pro­vided fed­eral fi­nan­cial aid to any as­pir­ing stu­dent who lacked the means to go to col­lege.

In re­cent decades Amer­i­can ex­pec­ta­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion have shifted. Be­cause of changes in the econ­omy, a post-sec­ondary cre­den­tial has gone from some­thing ev­ery Amer­i­can ought to have a right to pur­sue to some­thing ev­ery Amer­i­can needs to pur­sue just to have a shot at the mid­dle class. Higher ed­u­ca­tion, how­ever, has been drift­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. We’ve lav­ished more and more at­ten­tion and dol­lars on a small num­ber of highly se­lec­tive schools that in­creas­ingly cater to up­per-in­come fam­i­lies, while the bot­tom 90 per­cent of stu­dents strug­gle to pay tu­ition, typ­i­cally at un­der­funded pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions or, worse, at preda­tory for-profit schools.

Pres­sure for a third wave of re­form has thus built. You see it in ris­ing col­lege en­roll­ment rates among lower-in­come stu­dents, even as all Amer­i­cans ex­press frus­tra­tion at ris­ing costs and stu­dent debt lev­els. You see it in pleas by busi­ness and phil­an­thropic in­ter­ests for changes in the sys­tem to help a broader range of Amer­i­cans re­ceive post-sec­ondary skills and cre­den­tials. You see it in un­der-ther­adar pol­icy changes that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pushed through, such as cut­ting banks out of the fed­er­ally sub­si­dized stu­dent loan busi­ness and di­rect­ing the sav­ings to ex­panded Pell grants. You see it in pro­pos­als that haven’t been en­acted be­cause of our po­lar­ized pol­i­tics — for in­stance, in the calls for “free col­lege” that emerged un­ex­pect­edly in the 2016 Demo­cratic pri­mary race and that just one, Demo­cratic-con­trolled state, New York, has since ad­dressed, with a pro­gram of­fer­ing free tu­ition to mid­dle-class stu­dents. You see it in re­form ideas that are gain­ing trac­tion in Wash­ing­ton on both sides of the aisle, such as al­low­ing fed­eral fund­ing for short-term vo­ca­tional cer­tifi­cates and prison-based col­lege pro­grams. And you see it in a few pro­pos­als that have ac­tu­ally be­come law — specif­i­cally, a tax on large univer­sity en­dow­ments that was part of last year’s tax bill and that the higher-ed lobby hates.

Still, the third wave of re­form faces pow­er­ful re­sis­tance within cer­tain cor­ners of the Repub­li­can Party, in­clud­ing in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, and is un­likely to gain full force un­der cur­rent po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ments. A telling ex­am­ple is the “gain­ful em­ploy­ment rule.” Put into place af­ter years of court chal­lenges by the for-profit col­lege in­dus­try, the reg­u­la­tion would have cut off fed­eral fi­nan­cial aid to ca­reer-fo­cused schools whose grad­u­ates earn so lit­tle that they can’t pay back their loans. While the rule might have saved count­less lower-in­come stu­dents from ruin, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion over­turned it, cit­ing the need to “in­crease op­por­tu­ni­ties for work­force readi­ness.”

His­tory sug­gests that the third wave will kick in only with a ma­jor shift in po­lit­i­cal power. The orig­i­nal Mor­rill Act ac­tu­ally passed in 1857, over the op­po­si­tion of “states’ rights” South­ern law­mak­ers, but it was ve­toed in 1859 by Demo­cratic Pres­i­dent James Buchanan. It be­came law only af­ter se­ces­sion, when the Repub­li­can Party had uni­fied con­trol of the gov­ern­ment. The GI Bill and the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Act gar­nered some bi­par­ti­san sup­port but, again, hap­pened be­cause of uni­fied party con­trol of Wash­ing­ton, in this case by the Democrats.

The elec­tions this Novem­ber and in 2020 will have a great deal to do with whether the third wave con­tin­ues or stalls. But the fact that U.S. News & World Re­port, long the de­fender of the ex­ist­ing hi­er­ar­chy and sta­tus quo in higher ed­u­ca­tion, has changed its method­ol­ogy, even slightly, is a sign of where things are ul­ti­mately headed.

AM­BER ARNOLD/WIS­CON­SIN STATE JOUR­NAL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Grad­u­ates of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin — a land-grant col­lege founded with the help of the 1862 Mor­rill Act — cel­e­brate in May 2017.

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