Few other college comparison lists and rankings are as destructive to the public HBCU narrative as the annual US News and World Report best college rankings lists. The rankings, which for all the changes to methodology and arguments over who and why certain schools rank in certain quartile, inevitably are a free marketing machine for Ivy League and large state research institutions.
They throw a bone to smaller schools serving diverse student populations categorized by race, income and achievement level, but ultimately, what makes the headlines and the enrollment for the school which rank well is the annual arms race between Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, MIT to rank among the top five or as the top school in the nation.
Except when it comes to HBCUs. Our schools get their own list.
To understand the hustle of the US News and World Report HBCU rankings, you must first understand the methodology behind how they rank all schools. For HBCUs, it comes down to the following:
The indicators used to capture academic quality fall into six categories: assessment by administrators at peer institutions, student retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving.
So how much weight does each category get?
Graduation and retention rates (27.5 percent)
Peer assessment (25 percent)
Faculty resources (20 percent)
Student selectivity (12.5 percent)
Financial resources (10 percent)
Alumni giving rate (5 percent)
Nearly 50 percent of rankings are comprised of uncontextualized data about graduation rates from student populations who, were it not for HBCUs, wouldn’t even have been admitted to college, and what peer presidents think about every other campus outside of their own gates.
More than a third of a ranking score is determined by financial strength, which for HBCUs is drastically minimized by capital debt, students’ inability to pay every semester, and cuts in federal and state appropriations.
And the rest is weighted for how many students are blocked out of admission, and for how much money alumni give back to our schools.
The weight of the metrics flies in the face of how higher education, as an industry, is learning to function in the 21st century. More recognition should be given to schools who admit the poor and underprepared – categories which most high school graduates fall within in pockets across the country.
But more than bad metrics and poor interpretations of performance, there is the notion that HBCUs can be given their own list to celebrate a hierarchy of excellence in a black context. But unlike college football teams which can be classified according to the talent of a recruiting class or the overall size of a student body, the US News lists blatantly suggest that HBCUs should be celebrated for being second tier or inferior to schools which don’t do half of the work of black colleges in creating social mobility, industrial diversity, and economic development in minority communities.
I have considered over the years doing a ranking of HBCUs, but have always stopped short because the truth is that no one can adequately measure the true impact and value of HBCUs, given the enormous scope of their mission and function. It is impossible to measure the value of having a venue for black faculty and executives to have a system of promotion and leadership.
While the government measures first-generation and Pell Grant receiving enrollees, no one measures how many HBCU alumni go on to have children who also attend college and, because of being born to HBCU-educated parents, will apply for college and be ineligible to receive the low-income college subsidy.
No one measures how many black entrepreneurs get their largest contracts from HBCUs, or how much voter registration is created annually because of HBCU students spending money and mobilizing in their communities.
These are the things which HBCUs do in addition to providing quality education to more than 300,000 students nationwide – so it is impossible to rate this when HBCUs do different things for different communities all over the country. Unlike sports, there are no unbiased factors like wins and losses by which we can judge superiority. Dillard’s value to New Orleans is different from Southern’s value to Baton Rouge, and both schools have varying value to the state of Louisiana and the nation.
But because HBCUs aren’t serving 3 million students, and because their coffers reflect that unfortunate fact, we get our own segregated, borderline racist list that promotes the notion of separate and unequal between HBCUs and PWIs in institutional value and performance.
And we’re happy about it.
Consider the thoughts of William ‘Brit’ Kirwan in POLITICO, who as University System of Maryland Chancellor may have singled-handedly forced the state into a landmark federal lawsuit for discriminatory practices against its four HBCUs.
“If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” he said. “You need both more college graduates in the economy and you need many more low-income students getting the benefit of higher education — and U.S. News and World Report has metrics that work directly in opposition to accomplishing those two things that our nation so badly needs.”
If it’s so bad that white schools and white education experts are decrying it, why are HBCUs in a rush to celebrate it?