Last month we rehearsed a familiar ritual — we won, again. None of us were surprised to see Princeton top the U.S. News & World Report college rankings for the seventh straight year, whether the headline prompted a gleeful Facebook post or merely a disinterested shrug. We already knew this was the Best Damn Place of All.
Only a true Scrooge would belittle students for celebrating this small, ostensibly harmless holiday. What else do what we have — soul-crushing, late-night study sessions? Exams after winter break? The lingering specter of grade deflation?
Perhaps it’s sacrilegious, then, to say that nothing would make me happier next year than to see Princeton drop far down the list. But this contrarian sentiment isn’t directed against the individual attitudes of students, no matter how smug. I don’t begrudge my peers for their jabs at Harvard. The real issue at stake here is that Princeton plays a leading role in fueling inequality, a fact which is directly connected to its place on the U.S. News podium.
In September, a comprehensive POLITICO review (released only a couple days before the 2018 US News list) corroborated what higher education advocates have been for years now: rankings encourage universities to favor wealthy students.
The article lists a number of factors in the U.S. formula that incentivize schools to pursue students from high-income families. One category, for example, rewards universities for spending heavily on students and faculty, not including financial aid. High numbers of full-tuition students free up money to spend on, say, gratuitous food platters or washed-up celebrity profs who never respond to their advisees’ emails. (This isn’t to say that the University doesn’t invest in valuable teaching and research, but our culture of excess can be dizzying nonetheless.)
It all piles up quickly: to boost student selectivity (12.5 percent of the rankings, to be precise), schools seek applicants with high standardized test scores, which in comparison to high school grades correlate more highly with family income and less highly with college academic performance. The credit rankings give for alumni giving rates encourages schools to admit children of alumni (at astounding rates — legacies make up over 30 percent of the Harvard Class of 2021). Universities are rewarded for receiving positive evaluations from guidance counselors at highly ranked (that is, affluent) high schools, while underfunded schools have few if any counselors who can make these evaluations.
To sum things up: If you’ve ever wondered why Princeton drops $700 a piece on lawn chairs, while still mandating that certain students work campus jobs and not others, the U.S. News rankings may offer some explanation.
Lately, however, the University has been trying to ameliorate its country club reputation. Apparently, socioeconomic diversity is what gets President Eisgruber up in the morning. Even the bougie New York Times couldn’t conceal its incredulity as it declared: “Princeton — yes, Princeton — takes on the class divide.”
To the University’s credit, it’s certainly meaningful that Pell grant recipients represent 21 percent of the first-year class, up from 6.5 percent in the Class of 2007. Still, let’s not tokenize these individuals — who come from the bottom half (not fifth) of the U.S. socioeconomic spectrum — by omitting a holistic view of the Princeton student body’s class makeup. Another study released in 2017 revealed that students from the top 1 percent of wealth also accounted for nearly a fifth of the student body. Over 40 percent of the student body came from the top 5 percent. Around one in fifty students come from the bottom 20 percent of wealth.
It almost seems as if the University swaps out a few middle-class kids for a few lower-middle-class kids each year and then pats itself on the back. Meanwhile, Princeton’s status as a bastion of upper-class privilege remains undeniably intact.
If this system of inequality were to change, at least one of two things would have to happen: either U.S. News fundamentally changes its ridiculous rankings system, or Princeton overcomes its vice grip on the winner’s trophy. Given the perverse incentives built into the rankings formula, it’s hard to see how the University can begin to act “in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity” while striving for no.1. As long as the University vies for a high spot, it can only serve the rich first, everybody else second (or, more likely, not at all).
The University would inevitably slide in the rankings if it were to work towards equity rather than prestige — for example, by accepting qualified low-income students and discontinuing special treatment for legacies, or by eliminating a work requirement that puts an unfair burden on some students and not others. By prioritizing these kinds of measures, Princeton would act as a true leader rather than merely a winner.