Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. US News & World Report released its annual college rankings Monday. This is the 38th year that the magazine has published its rankings based on 17 criteria, such as high school class standings of enrolled students, student-faculty ratio, and graduation and retention rates. Of the 1500 institutions they assessed, only one Historically Black College and or University, Howard University, landed in the top 100 in their premier list, the best national university rankings. The notable lack of HBCUs in top spots comes as some college leaders and education officials question the metrics and outcomes of these rankings. Here's Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaking at a Department of Education event last month.
Miguel Cardona: Too often, our best resource schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count. That system of ranking is a joke.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, y'all. US News puts out a lot of these lists. The National University rankings is the big one, but in a separate list, comparing only HBCUs, US News & World Report placed Howard second to Spelman College, which they ranked 51st among "national liberal arts colleges". I spoke with Spelman's new president, Dr. Helene Gayle, about how these industry standard rankings affect HBCUs.
Dr. Helene Gayle: Well, first of all, we're pleased to be part of the top 100 and to have moved up in the rankings to number 51 overall. We've got lots of pride points, number one HBCU for the 16th year in a row, fifth top performer in social mobility, et cetera, we can go on down the list. I think in some ways these ratings don't really show the true value that HBCUs have.
I think you have to dig beneath the surface to understand the value that HBCUs, not just Spelman, but many of the HBCUs across the board, the outsized role that they play in terms of social mobility, educational opportunity, entry into important fields like the STEM fields, et cetera. I think that the ratings are great and they give a chance to compare across organizations, but I think you have to dig deeper to really understand the true value of the HBCU system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pause. What does that mean? Well, if you think about it, the criteria that US News & World Report measures are actually based on what young people have already achieved before entering college, rather than what the college adds to the young adulthood. If schools were instead ranked on their ability to move students up to help them grow, more HBCUs would receive higher overall rankings than they do right now.
Dr. Helene Gayle: I think people are starting to look at those issues more. What does a college education actually get to, and then where are the schools that actually achieve that better? At the end of the day, this is about an education preparing you for the world of work and for increasing social mobility, and making sure that we continue to have a society where one generation has a better outcome than the generation before. HBCUs punch well above their weight.
I think while I think these ratings have a value, I think we should start thinking about what is it actually that an education is for and how are we looking at schools in terms of their ability to achieve the goals that really matter. I would just add to that, obviously, as we think about the world and where we're going, where we will soon be a majority-minority nation, how are we making sure that everyone has the opportunity to realize their full potential and they have the opportunity, educationally, to do that in the schools that make the biggest difference for them? I think that's going to be important for the world that we're moving into.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's a lot of evidence to suggest that for families, particularly for what we might call TPUs, Tuition Paying Unit families, for those who can afford to pay a substantial portion of their young person's college education, that rankings matter a lot. Maybe they're not determinative, but they certainly are looking at those issues.
I'm wondering then, from the perspective of college and university leaders, whether or not there is an attempt to actively move up, and particularly if HBCUs saying, "Okay, if these are the things we would have to invest in, in order to move up the rankings, then those are some of the choices we're going to make." How much does US News & World Report affect day-to-day decision-making for a college leader at an HBCU?
Dr. Helene Gayle: Well, I think it affects because we know that college rankings do matter in terms of our brand and where parents feel they should invest their oftentimes scarce resources to be able to provide, especially for students of color, for low-income students, et cetera. We know that that matters. I think it is important to continue to build on the things that we know have increased our excellence as institutions and not just focus on the ratings. The ratings don't always look at our secret sauce, the fact that we actually punch above our weight. I think we need to think about some of the other factors that continue to build excellence while we're keeping our eye on where do we fit in the ratings.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do your students tell you? When those ratings came out, do they have t-shirts printed? What are they saying about what these rankings mean to them?
Dr. Helene Gayle: Well, I think they are proud to be at a school that is consistently rated high in those ratings. I think they're also just proud of what Spelman is as an institution, what it has been for 140 years. The center of excellence for educating Black women, women who choose to make a change in the world, women who are leaders and change-makers, so very proud of the sisterhood that Spelman provides while understanding it's great to be ranked number one HBCU, moving up in the overall rankings. They also are just proud of what Spelman has been historically and what they are, a legacy that they are part of.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering, as a final thought here, if HBCU leaders ever discuss the possibility of simply opting out of the ranking process in the ways that, for example, Columbia University did.
Dr. Helene Gayle: Well, I think right now, the ratings, again, still serve a purpose, but I think we should be talking about what is it that we want to be rated on. How do we want to be viewed? I think pulling out of the rating systems for HBCUs would perhaps not be to our advantage, but I do think thinking about what is it that really will continue to move us towards greater and greater excellence, part of that is resources.
We are hugely under-resourced when we look at many of our same-sized institutions, and so I think some of what we are both focused on is how do we have the investment in institutions that we know would deliver, but still are so under-resourced. I think that's going to continue to be an issue that we need to focus on while we're focusing on the excellence that has existed for hundreds of years now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Helene Gayle, president of Spelman College. Thank you for taking the time.
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