The Race and Class Bias of College Rankings | Jeff Bullock

The Race/Class Bias of College Rankings

This op-ed was originally published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald on Sunday, November 21st, 2016.

It’s college rating season, which means that it’s the time of year administrators scroll through  US News and World Report, Newsweek, Forbes, The Princeton Review, and the Wall Street Journal to see how their institutions show.  The higher the rankings, the better the University, or so the periodicals imply.  Unfortunately, none of the publications make an effort to explain how they arrive at their conclusions.  Even a slight application of the critical thinking skills colleges claim to encourage illustrates the inherent race and class bias of most college rankings.

Fact: Rankings are based on methodological categories determined to be of value by each periodical.  For example, Forbes gives extra weight to alumni salaries without considering their career fields: an excellent college that prepares K-12 teachers is at a disadvantage to a mediocre one that has engineering majors.  US News and Newsweek provide extra weight to students who come from privileged backgrounds where median ACT/SAT scores trend higher, but neither consider how socioeconomic class and location of the public school system affect those scores which penalizes colleges that create a diverse student body.  The Wall Street Journal weights graduate salaries and graduation rates (which is intimately tied to one’s socioeconomic origins) at a combined 23%, while student diversity, staff diversity, student inclusion and proportion of international students account for a combined weighting of 10%.

Fortunately, there are a few entities which rate schools based on what they are doing for our country and how their educational experience transforms students.  Ratings are based on outcomes, that is, how students are prepared and transformed rather than inputs, a student’s “history of origin.”  Brandon Busteed and the Gallup organization are taking it a step further.  In a recent Trusteeship article, Busteed noted “the end of college rankings as we know them.”  With a database of over 60,000 students, his research concludes that where a student attends school is absolutely of no consequence to living a great life.  What matters most is what happens within the university a student attends.  Students who report high degrees of emotional support and experiential learning score higher on the five elements of well-being scale that Gallup has been studying for 80 years.  For example:

-Did they have professors who made them excited about learning and cared for them as a person (emotional support)?

-Did they have mentors who encouraged their goals (emotional support)?

-Did they engage in high degrees of experiential learning, such as long-term projects, meaningful internships and involvement in extracurricular activities?

The well-being scale is critical in predicting the overall quality of a student’s post-college personal and professional life.  These elements of well-being are:

  • Purpose: how you occupy your time;
  • Social: relationships in your life;
  • Financial: managing your economic life;
  • Community: engagement where you live; and
  • Physical: health.

Students who experience four to six engagements of emotional or experiential support are overwhelmingly more likely to live healthy, productive lives after college.  In other words, an Ivy League undergraduate who never knows a professor is less likely to have a healthy adult life than an undergrad from Timbuck U, who was mentored by an English professor.

So here’s my advice when making a University visit: 

Ask the student tour guide/s how many professors they know, and whether their professors care for them. College Tour Tip: Ask the tour guide how many professors they know & whether their professors care for them. Click To Tweet

Ask who their mentors are, and the projects about which they’re excited. College Tour Tip: Ask your tour guide who their mentors are & the projects about which they’re excited. Click To Tweet

Ask whether they’ve had an internship, and what kind of organizations exist on campus. College Tour Tip: Ask the tour guide whether they’ve had an internship & what organizations they're part of. Click To Tweet

The empirical data concludes that the answers to those critical questions will determine the quality of your son’s or daughter’s life, post- graduation.  If you and your son/daughter are satisfied with the answers, they should apply, enroll, and prepare to have an experience that will form them for a lifetime.  And there’s one more thing:  recycle your copy of US News.

RELATED POST: A Letter To My Children About Student Debt


  1. Dr. Bullock,

    I first visited UD in the fall of 1984. I toured the campus, sat in an aviation class, met with the Department Chair, Financial Aid folks, the whole nine yards of a college visit. I even stayed overnight in the freshman dorm (at the time Casset Hall.) UD was the smallest school on my short list of colleges with aviation majors and the one that, while I didn’t recognize it at the time, showed all the well-being elements in my short visit. The students I visited with were enthusiastic about being at UD, referred to the professors as “my professor…” and showed a genuine interest in me as a prospective student.

    I visited another University on that college tour, met with their aviation program folks, stayed in their “Study Dorm” and never ever felt the connection that a less-than-24 hour visit at UD made with me. I went home knowing where I was going to college in the fall of 1985.

    Excellent post!

    • John,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to offer your thoughts and to share your experiences while on your first UD visit. I am enormously proud of and grateful for our faculty and professional staff who take this kind of transformational education seriously. They rarely get credit for this kind of investment through their respective guilds but they, almost to a person, receive enormous gratification from the relationships they develop with students. What happens “in” the University is what is important. Thank you for sharing your story, and for reaching out. We all are grateful for your investment in the UD Mission. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  2. The second to last paragraph of President Bullock’s Telegraph Op-ed essay regarding what to consider when planning to apply to an undergraduate college/university involves an inference which is simply not sound. The Ivy League school student he mentions may or may not have enjoyed the personalized environment described by President Bullock. What is left out of this scenario is the matter of “compensating factors” which are no less relevant to future quality of life and which can be quite person-specific. To make any credible inference about future outcomes simply on the basis of whether or not certain supportive factors were in place for that student is truly something of a stretch. Moreover, however personalized one’s experience may be at a given college, students and parents/guardians must always include in their screening processes questions and concerns about the capacity of specific institutions to foster, promote and develop the technical skills and social sensibilities one should expect of any reputable college/university. Examine carefully faculty qualifications and experience, request information regarding entrance requirements-their why and wherefore, ask for specific information about retention rates-what percent of students are graduating, what percent of graduates apply to graduate/professional schools-what percent of that group are accepted-ask for the identities of those school. In short, you will surely want to know as much as you can about the value your degree will have if and when you seek to enter professional school or a specific field of employment. Finally, know yourself, especially what it is about your own “take” on life that makes the “college thing” appealing. There are many colleges and universities in this country having very demanding entrance requirements often coupled with the expectation of self-directedness. These are institutions that take for granted a commitment to be challenged and to grow. While they are not unmindful of the importance of personalized support services for students who may experience difficulty in getting under way during their first term, the development of the capacity to take hold of life withal its challenges is always on-going at those campuses-so my advice is See yourself 5-6 years out, mull that vision over and over again, keeping in mind that it is in your own interest not only to size up the quality and range of supportive services (formal and informal)offered students by any specific institution but also to assess your own state of readiness. In the end it is this sense of responsibility to yourself that is critical when determining to which colleges/universities you apply.

    • Dick,
      Thank you for thoughtful response. What I’m talking about is, of course, more complicated than a post on a blog. However, the research I’ve referenced is extremely persuasive. I’d point you in the direction of Brandon Busteed. It’s fascinating.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. Jeff: Allow me to tell you a little about my own and my wife’s experience at UD. In the fall of 1955 I arrived at Dubuque Seminary to begin my three year course of study there. A week after my arrival another seminary student went across the street to Severance Hall, a women’s dorm for an open house hosted by Zeta Phi Sorority. I was impressed by the president of Zeta Phi, Marilyn Anderson who was serving coffee. She eventually became my wife. Later she told me how she learned to appreciate and understand the Bible better because of the teacher of Bible. She also felt enriched by being a member of the concert choir during her two years at UD. I benefitted from being placed as student pastor during my senior year. We both benefitted greatly from high quality education from teachers who valued us personally.

    • William,
      Thank you for sharing your wonderful story. I’ve come across many stories like yours during my time at UD. It’s always wonderful to hear more. Thank you for sharing.

  4. When I was trying to decide about where to go to Seminary my decision was really quite simple. I checked out most of the United Methodist Seminaries and UDTS. At UDTS I found faculty and staff as well as current students who were really interested in having me, a 53 year old non-traditional student, be part of their educational and spiritual experience. I did not experience this at other seminaries. I also found an institution that really was committed to preparing pastors for service in our smaller often rural churches. This I knew was where I was being “called” to ministry. I found teachers who lived their faith and were willing to share that most personal side of themselves with me. I’m still blessed 20 years later to call some of these people my friends and mentors. The happiest and most fulfilling years of my life, and my wife’s began when I enrolled at UDTS.

    • Jim,
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! Of course, I knew your story in coming to UDTS but I’m very glad that you’ve now shared it with others!

  5. I feel compelled to comment on President Bullock’s “The Race/Class Bias of College Rankings,” published 11/21/16 as an op-ed in the Dubuque Telegraph Hearald because I agree with most everything it said, but more particularly to comment on Dik Van Iten’s (UD ’57) objection to Bullock’s penultimate paragraph and its unspoken inference. While I agree with Van Iten’s well written expansion of parameters of all the variables to explore and evaluate in a student (and parent) choice of a post-secondary educational institution, I think the difference of measures has more to do with what is most important; the overall well-being of the post-college and professional life (purposeful, social balance, living within your means, community engagement, and physical health) in the case of the former, while the latter seems to place more valuative importance to one’s future quality of life reflective by the “compensating factors” of faculty vitae, the status of your undergraduate school’s ability to get you into a prestigious institution’s post-graduate program or “Blue Chip” firm or corporation, and ultimately to “know thyself.

    It is this last item along with Dik’s assertion that each student be self-disciplined (nose to the grindstone) and have enough self-directed assertiveness to confront professors (in their Towers) that I have a problem with and am so grateful to UD for being willing and able to address.

    Don’t get me wrong, I believe these qualities lend themselves to success, but they are not necessarily innate and can be cultivated and infused into individuals. My own son (UD ’15) is proof the mission, faculty and class size can produce an educated, well-rounded citizen, who is successful as a thoughtful, caring and accepting individual contributing to the well-being of himself and those around him. My son did not know what he wanted to do and did not have a clear-cut “take” on life and, therefore, could not have the self-directedness Mr. Van Iten states all colleges and universities {of size} require of their students. I think we must realize that times, experience, and expectations evolve. I am sure the 18 year differences in the student body and outcomes from Dik’s graduation and my own were much different, as were the 40 years from my graduation to my son’s. The world keeps changing and so must our institutions.

    The UD experience helped form my son through the extended adolescence that post-secondary school has evolved into. This small-town, rural young man was afforded up-close, personal encounters with people with different viewpoints, experiences, lifestyles, religions, cultures, and races on campus and five trips to eight countries in Europe. A non-joiner in high school blossomed with new friendships, memberships in four or five extra-curricular activities, and engagement in several on-going, hands-on job related campus activities… all while holding a work-study position all four years.

    The friendship/mentoring of three to four faculty members, in particular, made all the difference for my son; not only “fitting-in,” but questioning, exploring and evaluating the world around him to decide what kind of person he wants to be and what is important to his “well-being.” I agree with Dik Van Iten’s final statement, ” In the end it is this sense of responsibility to yourself that is critical when determining to which colleges/universities you apply.” My advice to my niece six years ago when considering DePaul University, was it really didn’t matter what school she chose; the value is dependent upon what YOU want to get out of it.

    My wife and I chatted with the President, who introduced himself outdoors while we were waiting for a Freshman Orientation event. This never happened during my undergraduate years at Western Illinois University nor my post-graduate program at Northern Illinois University. Jeff Bullock said, upon learning our son’s major, “Oh, those are the kids that never sleep!” I am thankful to UD for adherence to the mission of Liberal Arts and humanity to emphasize a quality individual over a quantified success.

    • Bill,
      Thank you for your constructive and engaged response! And I am so glad to hear that your son is doing well. All I really have to say is, “Amen!”

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