Just over two weeks ago, every student at Case Western Reserve University received an email announcing that the new U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 Best Colleges list had been released. Most of the message’s emphasis was placed on a single fact: CWRU had fallen five places to No. 42. While this revelation was certainly disheartening for many in administration, it failed to surprise students across campus.
One of the most critical changes to the rankings’ methodology was an alteration to how it weighted admissions-related metrics. Greater statistical priority was given to the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients. In theory, this new “social mobility” category would better determine how well a university meets the needs of economically disadvantaged students.
And it is within this very category that CWRU has been failing for years now.
Despite implementing numerous financial policies targeted at benefitting CWRU’s poorest students, monetary difficulties remain a reality for a sizeable portion of the student body. The university has a “Meet Full Need” policy that was introduced in 2016-2017, but it is not without caveats. For many students, the grant money they require to afford ever-increasing tuition costs is rescinded by the university if they attempt to live off campus. This essentially restricts them to highly expensive student housing unless they choose to exchange the grant for loans.
It is, on the surface, a highly deceptive practice that the university should consider eliminating. Yet, CWRU indicated in a request for comment that they tend to not make policy decisions in response to collegiate rankings. In fact, they claimed that they believed their performance under the new methodology would improve in the coming years due to present measures such as “Meet Full Need.” But this lack of responsive action misses out on an opportunity to address a critical and highly evident problem permeating campus. Rather than taking a closer look at resolving what has impacted a large portion of its students, the university expects the metrics will respond positively to their tangential policies.
If the university truly wishes to improve in these ratings, it will need to better accommodate its Pell Grant recipients. These students, who come from less affluent backgrounds, have reported a six-year graduation rate five percentage points lower than that of their entire class. Given the lack of socioeconomic diversity on campus, it is easy for the visibility of these students to be clouded. Supporting Grant recipients throughout their academic life on campus is critical, and the newly created Student Success Initiative’s goal of improving individual student experiences is a fantastic first step.
But there remains an inherent fault in the university’s rankings-response process. If CWRU believes that their performance will organically improve without an explicit policy response, what will happen if it doesn’t? This would indicate, at least to outside sources, that the university is demonstrating consistent failure relative to other institutions. Moreover, they’ve stressed the importance of rankings to the student recruitment process. So if they do take action, is their course of action really intended to resolve the issue or to improve superficial appearance to incoming students?
Treating these rankings exclusively as markers for appropriate action with future students allows present students to fall by the wayside. When there are evident, indisputable campus issues being ignored, the university hurts itself by looking outward rather than inward. CWRU may be willing to wait a few years to see where their current policies get them, but many of us only have a few crucial years left at the institution. These matter just as much as the prospective four-to-six years of incoming classes that they use rankings to draw in.
The rankings drop is disappointing to everyone, but moving past this decline cannot simply mean ignoring the realities that allowed it occur. It is critical that the university self-evaluate beyond the explicit criteria of the U.S. News & World Report and focus on improvement sooner, rather than later.