We’re proud to be in the Fiesta Bowl, but helping nonelite students succeed matters most
As president of the University of Central Florida, I spend considerable time talking to fans about our undefeated football team and where the Knights land in national rankings (eight in the final College Football Playoff poll).
However, truth be told, the inherent inequities in the College Football Playoff system — despite our team’s 25-game winning streak — are much less concerning to me than those of another traditional measuring stick of college success: the U.S. News & World Report’s annual “best colleges” rankings.
The U.S. News rankings favor exclusivity at the expense of what colleges are supposed to do: Improve social mobility, and help students of all socioeconomic backgrounds learn and move up in the world.
Too often, a college or university’s success is based on exclusivity or endowments rather than its ability to take students from all backgrounds and walks of life and help them unleash their full potential.
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The transformative power of education isn’t about picking the student who’s already most likely to succeed. It’s about identifying untapped talent with grit and indefatigable can-do spirit to give it their all, no matter the challenges.
In a modern economy that demands a college degree, stagnating mobility is devastating. Only 11 percent of students whose families are in the bottom income quartile (an annual family income less than $37,564) earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24. In the top quartile, 58 percent of students do.
The University of Central Florida will never stop prioritizing social mobility — we aren’t going to stop taking a large cohort of first-generation students and students using Pell Grants in the hopes of ticking up a few spots on the U.S. News rankings. But U.S. News should not be knocking us or any other school for making that decision.
This is an urgent problem. In today’s America, social mobility is rapidly fading.
U.S. News took a step in the right direction when, for the first time, it factored social mobility into its 2019 rankings, giving schools more credit for graduating larger numbers of students who receive Pell Grants. But the modest adjustment produced modest changes, and it hardly affected the top 10 at all. More needs to be done.
Higher ed is failing its social mobility mission
UCF and other similarly minded schools would move up the U.S. News rankings dramatically if the rankings prioritized social mobility. We’re a great-value public research university, where more than a quarter of our undergraduate students are first-generation college students and 40 percent are Pell Grant-eligible.
America’s higher education system is failing in its mission to foster social mobility. According to a study published last March in the journal Demography, the gap is growing between the rich and poor graduating from college.
But at UCF, we know talent isn’t restricted by income — only opportunity is. And we’re graduating low-income students at nearly twice the national average of all four-year institutions. We help them secure good jobs in strong fields as soon as they graduate. And this month, we announced a record $40 million investment in institutional financial aid. Social mobility is our calling card.
Social mobility has never been more valuable: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn 73 percent more on average than those who only completed high school, up from 50 percent in the late 1970s.
Supporting strivers outside the elite is crucial
I’m proud that we are playing in our third New Year’s Day Bowl since 2014. And I’m looking forward to a great game against a worthy opponent in Louisiana State.
But what matters most to me is what happens after the game. Do our students secure a great job after earning their degree? Are they on their way to a great career? Are they going to do better than the socioeconomic class they came from would have predicted?
The answers to those questions are more important.
Whether the College Football Playoff system is unfair to strivers such as UCF gets the lion’s share of the ink. But what I care about even more is how higher education supports strivers from outside the elite who are the first in their families to go to college.
The answer to that question will tell us whether social mobility will survive in a nation founded upon it.
Dale Whittaker is president of the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter: @UCFWhittaker
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