Stop praising exclusivity in higher education

Ranking schools based on selectivity of admissions is counterproductive to creating diverse communities.

ASU can officially claim another victory against our southernmost rivals at University of Arizona. But this victory, coming in the form of a recently published ranking of U.S. universities, is one we should seriously reconsider celebrating.

The ranking, performed by American City Business Journals and recently featured by both the Phoenix Business Journal and ASU Now, included 477 public colleges and universities, and ranked ASU 57th — an improvement from the previous year’s ranking. UA was ranked 99th, which was a fall of 20 spots from the 2015 ranking. The ranking was based on 20 factors, falling into the categories of selectivity (15 percent), advancement (25 percent), prestige (15 percent), resources (10 percent), costs (15 percent), diversity (10 percent) and community (10 percent).

A lot of the factors within these categories assess very real components of a successful university, including the community unemployment rate, racial and gender diversity of students and faculty, retention rate and instructional spending. 

Other factors, however, prove more problematic. Specifically, 15 percent of the overall ranking was attributed to admissions selectivity and the test score percentiles of admitted students. Still another 10 percent of the ranking was based on a “school's performances in the latest rankings by Forbes, Kiplinger's and U.S. News and World Report, as well as last year's rankings by The Business Journals.” Rankings by these external organizations also heavily weight admissions selectivity and test scores.

This emphasis on selectivity and prestige indicates a much broader problem with the definition of success in higher education. The whole notion of ranking schools based on how difficult they are to get into is natural. It is logical to think that the harder something is to attain, the more worthwhile and beneficial it is. However, striving for exclusivity ignores the value that lies in diversity. 

Test scores may be important for helping a school assess the strengths and weaknesses of a potential student, but they do little beyond that. Test scores provide no context of a student’s background, their passions, or their beliefs. Consistent analysis has shown that success on standardized tests like the SAT is highly dependent on family income, and is also marked by racial favoritism. High standardized admission test scores boost rankings, but often at the expense of community. At highly selective institutions, students are numbers and competitors: They are means to the end of prestige.

Education is a public good, and ASU is a public university. Selectivity and prestige are elements that deliberately restrict access to this public good. Valuing selectivity and prestige therefore contradicts the essence of public education. 

ASU, for the most part, has done a good job moving away from a one-dimensional focus on selectivity by instead expanding and promoting accessibility. Inclusivity and access have been major focuses for President Michael Crow in his effort to create a more diverse institution. ASU’s admission rate is 84.3 percent, compared to a rate of 74.6 percent at the UA, and 28.5 percent at the highest-ranked school, University of North Carolina. Despite ASU’s relatively inclusive admission rate, it’s clear that a broader institutional mindset change is needed. If we want to promote access, we need to discredit the overvaluation of prestige and selectivity.

There’s another part of this ranking that we should acknowledge as well: ASU’s faculty is 73.7 percent white and 58.2 percent male. Accessibility that encourages student diversity is admirable, but it would be hypocritical to ignore the equal importance of having different ideas standing at the front of the classroom. If we truly value diversity, we cannot restrict the application of this value judgment to the admissions process.

As students, we should feel proud that our school believes that more different ideas from more different people makes us stronger. We should be excited that ASU is gaining national attention for the strong institution it is, but we shouldn’t let our desire for more prestige and higher rankings allow us to sacrifice a distinct and inclusive community. It’s time to reward universities for who they include, not who they exclude.

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Reach the columnist at maarmst7@asu.edu or follow @MiaAArmstrong on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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