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Five Questions: Michael Bastedo on School Rankings and Low-Income Students

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Interview conducted and edited by Emily Richmond

Michael Bastedo is an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, where he specializes in governance, politics and decision-making processes of higher education both in the United States and internationally. He’s also a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Huffington Post.

1. Education reporters spend a great deal of time writing about reports that rank performance and measure academic standings. You’ve suggested there needs to be more scrutiny of how some of the most well-known annual rankings are tabulated. Should reporters be more skeptical?

When I read articles about school rankings, there often isn’t really clear discussion in the piece about the limitations of the formula. I do wish reporters took more of a critical position instead of just repeating, “Here’s what the rankings are.” For example, there are substantial questions surrounding U.S. New & World Report’s annual college and university rankings – how the survey is done, how the results are collected and how representative those results really are.

2. What questions should reporters be asking about rankings?

The U.S. News & World Report rankings came out last Tuesday, and I didn’t get a single call for comment. It’s not about me – I read the articles and I don’t see reporters talking to anybody other than U.S. News or an official at the local college or university responding to their position on the list. Few people are asking, “What does it mean if a university drops two places?”

The truth is if something significant has changed on a campus, it’s not necessarily going to be reflected in those rankings. You wouldn’t want to create a causal inference. The rankings probably went down for reason, but it’s not necessarily about a loss of quality in the programs.

3. You are lead author of a new study that found that even though students from low-income families are taking more advanced classes and improving their academic resumes, they are not representing a larger percentage of the overall enrollment at top universities. What is holding them back?

It’s not for lack of aspiration, or that they’re perfectly happy going to local, less prestigious colleges in their area. It’s about the academic competition among students of all income brackets.

We’ve seen a significant increase among students in the lowest income quartile who are taking more advanced courses in math and science. It’s clear that students, no matter what their family’s income bracket might be, are getting the message of what colleges want from them. The students know they need to take the more rigorous courses.

The problem is that while the lower-income students have been making gains, students from more affluent families have also been taking more rigorous courses and generally are attending better high schools. The wealthier students are better able to compete in the market for the most selective colleges.

4. But aren’t top schools offering more financial aid to qualified low-income students?

The degree to which merit scholarships are offered by less-selective institutions might actually be preventing low-income students from enrolling in more selective universities.

It’s happened two times recently that people (at more competitive universities) have told me they’re losing students to less selective schools that can offer “full ride” scholarships.

People ask me why a low-income student wouldn’t opt for a more selective school. Academic competition is a factor, and merit aid is probably another factor.

The highest-performing student in a rural school district might come from a family with an annual income of $30,000. The student could get into the University of Virginia, but instead opts to enroll at a less-selective school that offers a full ride. The University of Virginia might be able to offer some financial aid, but it might not be a scholarship that covers everything. Even if they are the valedictorians of their high school and the star of their hometown, the less affluent students’ files might not look as competitive when it’s put next to students from a wealthier family who has had the advantage of some truly extraordinary resources.

5. When you read education stories, which ones tend to stick with you?

I really like it when reporters take a broad issue, such as retention, and actually go to a campus and talk to students. I want to hear specifically about what causes them to stay in school or, conversely, to drop out.

For me as an educator, having access to that kind of information within the broader context of a policy discussion can be really informative. That’s something that reporters can do a great job informing the public, as well as educators and researchers. What’s the impact of these broader organizational changes? What’s the real effect on our students’ lives?