INSIDE HIGHER ED'S Doug Lederman may or may not be acting surprised that college rankings mean things, and people act as if those rankings mean things.
But higher education has a hierarchy, and that is where the picture starts to change. The authors [researchers at Georgetown University] divide postsecondary education into three tiers: most-selective (which incorporates the most, highly, and very competitive segments identified by Barron’s), a middle “competitive” tier of four-year colleges, and all other four-year and two-year institutions, all of which essentially admit all students.

Between 1995 and 2009, the most-selective category proportionally saw the most expansion, growing in enrollment by 78 percent, from 325,068 to 578,645. (The middle tier grew to near 560,000 from 435,000, and the open-access institutions to 1.63 million from 1.35 million.) The growth in the top tier may seem counterintuitive, given that highly selective institutions typically do not grow (after all, many are selective precisely because they limit the number of students they admit, even as competition for the seats increases).
There's nothing that stops a university from committing resources to raising its academic profile. McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts can add gourmet coffee, is it so wrong for George Mason to hire a Nobel Laureate in economics?
But much of the growth in students in the top competitive tiers has occurred because of significant growth in the number of colleges in those tiers. In 1995, Barron’s listed 326 in its top three levels of competitiveness (which includes at the lower end institutions with median test scores of between 1150 and 1240 on the SAT or 24-26 on the ACT, and that admit between a third and three-fourths of their applicants). By 2009, 468 colleges were in the three categories.
Apparently, though, the report, or Mr Lederman, suggest there are racial differences in the propensity of students to apply to the more competitive institutions, perhaps more than enough to offset the perceived mismatches affirmative action supposedly creates in entering classes.
The data presented thus far open the door to the objection that is often offered when the issue of educational outcomes by race is raised: but aren’t the students less academically prepared?

To a point, yes, the authors note: “College readiness is clearly a factor in explaining African-American and Hispanic students’ access to selective education.” But the report presents data showing that even similarly qualified students of different races take different paths.

Twenty-two percent of white students who had an A average in high school end up at open-access two- and four-year colleges, compared to 30 percent of African-American and Hispanic students, the study found.
Mr Lederman makes a conventional argument about higher education replicating existing social hierarchies.
So instead of working to correct or counteract "the racial and ethnic stratification in educational opportunity entrenched in the nation’s K-12 education system" and evidenced in "white flight from the center city to better neighborhood schools in the leafy green suburbs," those inequities are increasingly being "faithfully reproduced ... across the full range of American colleges and universities."
His reflection on public policy is similarly conventional.
But many of those students don't necessarily meet the regular admissions standards of some of the more-selective colleges, and whether they will be able to give such students an edge in admissions, Carnevale said, may depend in part on the legal fate of race-based preferences in admission.

But all the affirmative action in the world won't solve the inequity that higher education is, at this point, merely replicating and reflecting, the authors argue. Because of how integrated various aspects of the problem are with one another -- "the fact that the whole system is one mechanism, one sorting device," as Carnevale puts it -- undoing it will not be easy. The report does not even attempt a solution.
There's a simpler explanation: mid-tier universities that are too aggressive in practicing, let alone bragging on, their commitment to diversity, might well be ringing the leper's bell of access-assessment-remediation-retention (It's Thursday afternoon. Indulge me the cumbersome metaphor.) Insta Pundit, who apparently is working on his own education policy book, appends a comment to his link to Mr Lederman's essay.
The biggest danger was when smart women from less-well-off backgrounds [whether admitted on diversity grounds or not to top-tier institutuions] got onto what [Paying for the Party authors Elizabeth] Armstrong and [Laura] Hamilton call the “party pathway.” The richer girls who did this usually emerged okay, with family connections and parental subsidies allowing them to snag good jobs and internships in spite of any partying-related stumbles. The poorer girls with similar credentials (“strivers”) who got on the party track tended to emerge with low GPAs, unimpressive post-college jobs (frequently jobs that they could have gotten without a college degree) and burdened with debt. They actually often wound up with downward mobility, rather than the upward mobility that colleges sell. (Interestingly, the “strivers” who did best were the ones who transferred to less-prestigious regional state universities, which were also often cheaper. These schools – the Northern Kentucky Universities of the world – focus more on teaching, and are often more oriented toward student success, frequently in a less party-oriented atmosphere). The big schools, for the “strivers,” were often an expensive detour.
The message for the Northern [State] Universities (the generalization left as an exercise) is, however, making sure the strivers get the kind of academic experience in which they can thrive, rather than a low-budget version of the club and sports scene that can waylay students.  Student success, though, implies a degree of stratification going forward.

SECOND SECTION.  The dean at Pioneer Valley Community read the report, and offers an instructive suggestion.
And honestly, from inside a community college, the whole “undermatching” thesis is patently offensive.  If you accept the premise that only ten percent of colleges are academically worthwhile, then the arguments about the judicious allocation of spots in the freshman classes for those ten percent become crucial.  But what if you reject the premise?  Instead of trying to pry the “low-hanging” (!!) talented students of low income out of their communities, wouldn’t it be better to improve the colleges they actually choose?

I don’t disagree with Carnevale’s concern about class stratification.  But I’m more than a little perplexed that the solution is to toss life preservers more accurately.  We’d do better to make sure that every ship is seaworthy.  Multiply choices, improve the options, and make sure that community colleges and public four-year colleges can do right by students wherever they are, and celebrate successes where and when they happen.
Every ship seaworthy, indeed.

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