College ranks demonstrate endemic income inequality

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Students should be excited about UT-Austin ranking 52nd overall and 16th among public schools in the new U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Longhorns should be proud that out of the 4,000 colleges in the United States, UT ranks in the top 1 percent. But we are the 1 percent in more ways than college rankings.

While college ranking websites do an adequate job at reassuring the general public on the prestige of the Ivy Leagues, it also paints a different picture for America’s post-secondary education. According to a study the University of California-Los Angeles conducted, top institutions, such as UT, have a population where half the students come from families with incomes in the nation’s top 20 percent. Conversely, this pattern applies to less prestigious colleges, such as Texas A&M-Kingsville, where half of the student population come from bottom 40 percent.

According to economics professor emeritus Daniel Hamermesh, the wealthiest private schools and top public universities get a disproportionate share of their students from well-off backgrounds.

“Of course there’s a wealth gap across schools,” Hamermesh said. “Each year, I do a survey of the family income of my Intro to Microeconomics students. Most recently, the median family income was over $120,000. That is twice the median family income nationally. Most of the students here are hardly poor.”

Although U.S. News is not solely responsible for the nation’s growing income inequality, it is responsible for perpetuating the idea that the more expensive and higher-ranked schools offer the best education — an idea that doesn’t have absolute statistical backing. In an essay from The New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about problems of measurability with college rankings.

“There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution — how well a college manages to inform, inspire and challenge its students,” Gladwell said. “So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality — and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”

Education is known as the great equalizer — that if one could work hard and attain a college degree, then he or she would be able to rise up the social ladder.

But the reality of the prestigious universities doesn’t hold up to such an ideal. When institutions only have a make-up of a homogeneous student body among a certain income bracket, there will be a great divide in opportunity across the spectrum. By furthering the myth that the best schools are the ones that the wealthy attend, college rankings simply perpetuate this divide.

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of Labor, wrote recently about the growing opportunity advantage for prestigious institutions.

“The elite pour money into them because these institutions have educated them, and, they hope, will educate their offspring,” Reich said. “And because these institution have educated such a high proportion of America’s wealthy elite, that elite looks with particular favor on graduates of these institutions in making hiring decisions.”

Colleges are more aristocratic than meritocratic. That’s a growing problem that has contributed to and maintains the immense income inequality gap America sees today. Although income inequality in higher education is a complex and giant problem, the first step to finding a solution is acknowledging it. A culture of prestige is just no longer beneficial for America.

Choudhury is an economics freshman from Richardson. Follow him on Twitter @MubarratC.