Cardona: College data good, college rankings 'a joke'

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a roundtable discussion on reproductive rights with Vice President Kamala Harris and college presidents, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House on Aug. 8. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona had tough words last week for the lists of rankings that colleges and universities often tout, saying that they encourage schools use their resources on clout-chasing, rather than to improve metrics that actually tell whether students are being served well.

“Every year, millions of students wind up in what I call ‘postsecondary purgatory,'” Cardona said during the Education Department’s “Raise the B.A.R.: Bold + Action + Results in College Excellence and Equity” conference in Washington last Thursday. “They earn some credits, but no degree. Then they have student debt they cannot afford and a limited path to higher-paying jobs.”

He also suggested many institutions spend “enormous time and money chasing rankings they feel carry prestige,” but do little more than reinforce the elite statuses keeping many university gates locked for less-privileged students.

“There’s a whole science behind climbing the rankings,” Cardona said. “It goes like this: compete for the most affluent students by luring them with generous aid, because the most well-prepared students have the best SAT scores and graduate on time; seek favor with your peers from other elite schools with expensive dinners and lavish events, because their opinions carry clout in surveys; and invest in the most amazing campus experiences that money can buy, because the more graduates who become donors, the more points you score! … That system of ranking is a joke!”

Cardona did not name any specific publishers of college rankings, such as U.S. News & World Report, but he said schools should instead focus on metrics like degree completion, economic mobility and whether they’re narrowing gaps in access.

“We must embrace a new vision of college excellence,” he said, crediting schools that’ve used data analytics to help students avoid pausing or ending their studies, recruiting more adult learners to offset enrollment declines and tracking overall student success.

During his speech, Cardona announced a new $5 million competitive grant program to support data-driven student success efforts at historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. He also said the Education Department is giving a three-year extension to Project Success, a program launched in 1968 to promote recruitment at HBCUs and other minority-serving schools.

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