If you're searching for the colleges and universities that are best at getting low-income students into and through college, think black or think California.
A new college guide published on-line this week by Washington Monthly shows that when it comes to recruiting and graduating low-income students - a major goal of the nation's growing college access movement - all but one of the nation's top 10 universities and top 10 liberal arts colleges are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) or those within the University of California system.
The guide is billed as an alternative to the college rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, which Washington Monthly criticizes as being too biased toward institutions that have money and prestige.
"In our eyes, America's best colleges are those that work hardest to help economically disadvantaged students earn the credentials that the job market demands," Washington Monthly states in explaining how it uses "social mobility" - that is, the rate at which colleges recruit and graduate low-income students - among other criteria, to make its ranking decisions.
Leonard L. Haynes III, former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, says the fact that HBCUs lead the nation in graduating low-income students is nothing new. Though often overlooked and undervalued, Haynes said, HBCUs essentially created the black middle class, despite longstanding racism.
"The HBCUs have a proven track record in educating under-served populations, especially African-Americans," Haynes told Youth Today during an interview this week at the White House Initiative on HBCUs conference in Washington, D.C. "That's been their historic mission."
He said HBCUs could do more with better funding, including serving students with "educational deficits" - a problem that has spurred increased interest in finding and expanding the most effective strategies in remedial or so-called "developmental" education. But, Haynes said, HBCUs don't get adequate funding because racism still influences funding decisions in the government and private sector.
"We're experts at it," Haynes said of working with academically underprepared students. "But because (HBCUs) are black, (funders and decision-makers) think it must be bad."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a speech at the conference that the Obama Administration is working to provide more funding to HBCUs in 2010.
"At the same time, I do not think that more resources alone are the answer to the challenges facing higher education or HBCUs," Duncan said.
"For the foreseeable future, higher education leaders can no longer expect to rely on the traditional strategy of sustained economic growth and increased government revenues to pave the way for expanded enrollment," Duncan said. He said a more promising long-term solution is to have college administrators "make better and more imaginative use of efficiency, productivity improvements, and accountability."
"With enhanced productivity and accountability, many postsecondary institutions, including HBCUs, can boost quality, access, and constrain costs - all at the same time," Duncan said.
Many HBCUs still lag
Although some HBCUs have emerged as leaders in recruiting and graduating low-income students, many still fail to graduate a large percentage of their students, research has shown.
"HBCUs play an important role in our higher education system, and some appear to be doing an
excellent job of providing opportunities to their students by helping them earn a degree in a reasonable amount of time," says a recent American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research study called Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (And Which Don't). "For many African-American men and women, however, choosing to attend an HBCU may be a risky investment," the study states, "one with a less than 50 percent chance of producing a degree."
Frederick M. Hess, a co-author of that study and resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, warns that college rankings tend to be limited in scope and value and therefore must be viewed warily.
"What people should always be careful about is, like when we rank the president, it depends on who's doing the rankings and what the criteria are," Hess said. "So when consumers are looking at college rankings, they should be real concerned about and critical of how they are being scored."
The fact that the Top 10 universities or liberal arts colleges for social mobility are almost entirely HBCUs or University of California schools under Washington Monthly's college rankings scheme emerged when a Youth Today reporter used "social mobility" sort function of the publication's college guide for both categories of schools and then looked up the history of the schools that ranked within the Top 10. The only school that wasn't an HBCU was Berea College in Berea, Ky., which charges no tuition and accepts only academically promising students who have no resources for college.
Hess said what matters most for students is whether a school has a good program in the area of their career interest and how much attention and support they will get on campus - and college rankings don't address that.
The bottom line for prospective students or those who work with them, he said, is to research the individual institution. "There's never a substitute for doing your homework," Hess said, "especially when you're spending thousands of dollars."
More rankings at whatwilltheylearn.com
Washington Monthly is not the only alternative college ranking site trying to compete with the popular college rankings of U.S. News & World Report. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently launched whatwilltheylearn.com, a project of that promotes itself as "guide to what college rankings don't tell you."
The problem is whatwilltheylearn.com is a bit skimpy on information itself. And it uses a simplistic scheme whereby colleges and universities are ranked on their general education requirements. Under this scheme, leading institutions such Harvard and Yale get D's and F's simply because they don't have enough "general education requirements" in seven categories: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science. The notion is that a college that doesn't have a composition requirement, for instance is graduating students who don't have to write compositions -- as if students won't be asked to write compositions in their various classes.
"It's very easy to caricature what we're doing," concedes David Azerrad, Program Officer at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. "We're not saying if you come out of Yale, you have no education. What we are saying is Yale is not assuring that all of its graduates covered the basics."
Perhaps that's because in order to even get into Yale students not only have to have covered the basics but excelled in them as well -- a point Azerrad conceded.
"It may be that they may not need (requirements) because they're particularly blessed," Azerrad said.