Breaking the Grip of the College Rankings Game

 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired June 30, 2022

Colin Diver, author of Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do about It, visits the podcast to talk about how U.S. News & World Report and other rankings force colleges into standardized hierarchies and threaten the institutional diversity and social mobility that is the hallmark of American higher education. The hosts open the episode with a brief conversation on how overturning Roe v. Wade might impact higher ed, and the new proposed rules for Title IX announced by the Biden administration last week.



Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Introduction

Supreme Court Ruling Will Upend Reproductive Rights for College Students and Complicate Medical Training
The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req.) | June 24, 2022

New Rules on Title IX
Inside Higher Ed | June 23, 2022

Fifty Years On, Title IX’s Legacy Includes Its Durability
The New York Times (sub. req.) | June 23, 2022

Conversation with Colin Diver

Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It

Taking on ‘U.S. News’?
Inside Higher Ed | June 6, 2022

Injecting Equity Into the Carnegie Classifications
Inside Higher Ed | March 28, 2022

The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream
The Atlantic (sub. req.) | July 17, 2019

College Scorecard
Department of Education

Washington Monthly’s 2021 College Guide and Rankings

Raj Chetty in 14 Charts: Big Findings on Opportunity and Mobility We Should All Know
Brookings | Jan. 18, 2018

How Can We Amplify Education as an Engine of Mobility?
Opportunity Insights

Hosts and Guests
Transcript

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. A little later in the episode, we'll be joined by Dr. Colin Diver, who is the former president of Reed College, and currently the Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law and Economics Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Diver is going to join us to talk about his brand new book, Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It, which I will recommend to listeners right up front is a great and really interesting book, that I think even higher ed people who spend all the time thinking about the policy can learn a few things from.

But before we get to Dr. Diver, I am joined as always by my amazing co-host, Sarah Spreitzer and Mushtaq Gunja. How are you both doing?

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey, Jon.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hi Sarah, Hi Jon. Doing well, thanks for asking. The book is good, not just for our traditional audience, but I think there's some good little nuggets in there for prospective college applicants, too. So if you've got somebody in your life that's about to apply for college, like my nephew, I'm definitely passing this book on to that family, so it'll be a fun conversation.

Jon Fansmith: I'm also sending it to my nephew, so we've got that in common, Mushtaq.

Mushtaq Gunja: I wonder if it's the same nephew. That would be weird.

Jon Fansmith: I would love to find out we're related. That would make me so happy.

Mushtaq Gunja: We're all related, Jon.

Sarah Spreitzer: Even better, why don't you guys bookend it with Beth Aker's book, and the podcast that we did on the economics of choosing your major. You could send them a copy of this podcast, a copy of the podcast with Beth, copies of both the books. I'm sure they would really appreciate it.

Jon Fansmith: They might appreciate the books. I've tried to get my nephew to listen to my podcast, so far unsuccessfully, but the books I'm sure he'd appreciate.

Mushtaq Gunja: So, big news in Washington this week, or late last week, Friday of last week. The Supreme Court issued its long-awaited, I guess, decision on Roe.

Sarah Spreitzer: I was just going to say, I don't know if it was long-awaited, Mushtaq. You're referring to the decision on Roe, overturning Roe v. Wade, in the Dobbs case. I don't know, I thought it was pretty surprising, but that's obviously taking up a lot of the conversations in Washington, DC. But you're a lawyer, you watch the Supreme Court pretty closely. What did you think?

Mushtaq Gunja:
I don't practice, and didn't practice, constitutional law. I haven't thought about the right to privacy, Fourth Amendment, Fifth, Sixth Amendment, Ninth Amendment issues super closely in the last few years. But like all Americans, I think, have been thinking about Roe, abortion, for years.

Look, the decision is striking in a lot of ways. The court did not need to do what the court did. I think in most circumstances, the court decides the issue that's in front of it. The issue in front of the court was this Mississippi 15-week abortion ban. The court had six votes to uphold that ban, and could easily have done that without overturning Roe v. Wade.

Roe v. Wade was not exactly an issue that needed to be tackled, but at least five justices decided to do it anyway, which I think makes me really worry a little bit about how this court is going to approach precedent and approach the traditional narrowness of the ways in which court jurisprudence is developed. Usually, the court has taken small steps, incremental steps over time, when they make monumental decisions. They just didn't do that here. Jon and Sarah, I wonder how that struck you?

Sarah Spreitzer: It seems to me, when I look to see, to think what's going to happen in a month, six months, a year from now, it seems like it's going to be a lot of chaos, because obviously the court threw it back to the states to say all the individual states are going to decide. But we are the United States of America, so you can easily travel between states, or you're still part of the United States.

So, I think a lot of our institutions, it was interesting, because I know some institutions put out statements. I think many of them are thinking the place where our institution is, is that going to impact us? Are students going to decide not to go to college because we're in a certain state that's going to take a different stance than, say, the state next door?

For our state institutions, how is that going to impact them? How is it going to impact the training of medical students at our institutions? I think all of that, we're just going to have to wait to see how it plays out. I think it will result in a lot more court cases.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, that seems inevitable, and that we'll go state by state. We talk about this a lot at ACE, that a single federal policy, and clearly in a lot of cases states were putting different restrictions in place so there was no universal policy, but without any kind of certainty around the rights that individuals will have on our campuses, and how that may change state by state, it complicates greatly, I think, how institutions will react.

I was struck, Sarah, when Mushtaq said "The long-awaited," and you kind of responded. I had the same feeling, this I think took a lot of people by surprise. They didn't have to go as far as they have. Frankly, the court has generally tended to side with tighter and tighter restrictions, but not overturning the fundamental right, so I think a lot of people were caught off guard.

It certainly seems the reaction we're getting from our members is, we don't know where this takes us, we don't know. Does this mean we need to start thinking more about the kinds of care you offer pregnant students or parenting students? These are things that we just don't know at this point, because for 50 years this has been settled law of the land, and we're in this very, very different world right now.

I'll say, the other thing which struck me, and I know we've talked about this a little bit internally, there's a political dynamic to this too. This is a court decision. Obviously with the structure of the court, it's not that the court will overturn this precedent that they've established anytime soon, but we have been talking for months about a Republican blowout in the midterm elections. We are going to start seeing some polling, you've already seen some hints of it, that this has really energized and galvanized Democratic voters. There are now some pundits who are predicting that this may boost a majority in the Senate, that maybe this isn't enough to stop a Republican takeover of the House. But with the momentum, the fundraising, the activity, you might see if it switches, the margins closing, getting smaller and smaller.

So, this has an impact, and I think rightly we started with the health and safety of women and others, but it's also in our world going to have some implications as to what we might see happening in Congress next year. Was it Chuck Schumer? Somebody said if they have sufficient votes, they'll overturn the filibuster to pass an abortion rights bill. I thought I just saw that today.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I think more and more senators are calling for doing away with the filibuster in light of this decision. But I also found it, I don't know if ironic is the right word, but obviously it was decided the day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX. The biggest news of last week before the Roe decision was that the Department of Education had actually released some information about the long-awaited Title IX regs.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and they did. As you mentioned, they released it on the 50th anniversary of Title IX being signed into law. It's been interesting because I think a lot of the attention, a lot of the focus, has been on the fact that in these rules, the administration has aligned the rules around equitable treatment between genders with the president's executive order, particularly as it relates to trans and non-binary individuals, according them the same protection under Title IX as other sexual orientations or gender identities, adding that.

Again, a lot of that focus has been on that, but the sexual assault regulations themselves continue to be a huge and challenging and complicated issue for campuses. With the guidance the Obama administration put out through the Trump administration's new regulations on sexual assault to these now regulations, in a relatively short period of time we've seen three very dramatic swings in how campuses are instructed to handle cases of sexual assault and harassment. That, by themselves, would be a momentous act with huge repercussions for campuses. You add to it this already stirring controversy, particularly as we talk about this at the state level where anti-trans bills have been passed in some places, it's going to be even more controversial than usual.

I think, again, it's a difficult environment for campuses because there's no clear precedence here. There's no settled, "We understand that this is this, so we can do that." It's a really chaotic situation right now. I think we at ACE, and certainly our members, are still trying to process what's in those rules, how that applies to their campus, what it allows them to do.

Certainly some things we're very happy to see in there move away from these mandated courtroom-like procedures that the Trump administration had put in. But still, as you pointed out, a 700-page reg, huge implications for institutions, a lot to work through and figure out. I know we're going to be doing a lot of that here at DC, we'll have some updates on that too, but we know our institutions are doing that at the same time.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, I'm glad that we have such a great team that will be diving into those 700 pages so that I don't have to do it myself and make sense of all of the work in there.

Combining these two topics, the politics of all of this, I think, really make me think that the tenor of the midterms really could be a little bit different. Inflation, of course, is high, pocketbook issues have been really foremost in people's minds, but three months is a lifetime in American politics.

I'm just so curious about what is going to happen, especially because, Sarah, Jon, you both referenced abortion going back to the states, and sure, that's what the court's sort of first ruling is. I also very much think that there's a possibility that, what is it, HR1 of a unified Republican Congress may well be a national abortion ban.

I think, at the least, I would assume basically every Republican who's running for federal office is going to have to ask where they might stand, in ways that they've been able to duck for decades. So, I'm really curious about whether all of our politics are about to get, well, a little bit less steady and a little bit less predictable.

Sarah Spreitzer: Which, I was going to say, Jon, of course leaves them with plenty of time to do their regular order of business, like appropriations and finishing things up before they leave town for the midterms.

Jon Fansmith: I will say, on that point, kudos to the House appropriators. The rest of the House is on recess for the next two weeks, they're off. The appropriators are plugging along. They're doing markups this week, they are moving their bills, so it's at least, in my experience, pretty uncommon, especially around a break that's as big as the July 4th break, to see an entire committee stay in and work its way through, but it's welcome certainly, to see that commitment.

The process is always delayed the last few years, it's delayed again this year, so the appropriators taking the opportunity when their colleagues are out campaigning to get in there and finish their business. Again, we've talked about this, whatever the House does is going to be the high water mark for us. The Senate, who knows? The process itself twists and turns, takes longer than it should. Again, kudos to people for working through everybody else's vacation.

Mushtaq Gunja: Kudos to Congress.

Jon Fansmith: Rare we can say that, right.

Mushtaq Gunja: Anyway.

Jon Fansmith: Well, and another subject to give kudos to is Dr. Colin Diver's book, which we will be talking about with him right after the break.

Welcome back, we are joined by Dr. Colin Diver, who is the author of Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It. Very much wanted to welcome you to our show, Colin, and thank you for joining us today.

Colin Diver: It's a great pleasure for me to do that, thank you.

Jon Fansmith: I gave the title of your new book, but I thought maybe this would be a good opportunity for our listeners, if you could talk a little bit about what motivated you to write this book in the first place?

Colin Diver: Okay. For 10 years as a law school dean, and 12 years as a college trustee, I lived under the thumb of the ranking system. I became intimately familiar with all of its foibles and its failures. Then I had the distinct pleasure for 10 years to be president of a college, namely Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which had publicly and rather proudly proclaimed its freedom from ranking, and it renounced rankings. I had the experience of knowing what it was like to be liberated from rankings.

So, when I was invited to write about this, I snapped at the chance and said, "Yes, I think I have a lot to say." I fundamentally believe that rankings have distorted, if not to say corrupted, higher education, and I deeply believe in the mission of higher education, so that's why I wrote the book.

Jon Fansmith: One of the things that struck me as I was reading it was, I went into it thinking this would be about the ranking systems, the U.S. News & World Reports. There's certainly plenty to talk about, and you cover that from a lot of great angles. But you dive really deeply into so many facets of higher education, and I think tie it back together to how these are all interlinked. Can you talk a little bit more about, why such a broad view of higher education, when specifically the focus was initially about rankings?

Colin Diver: Very good question, and it's an astute observation, I think, about the book. I view rankings as a window into higher education. So I'm not simply interested in the phenomenon of rankings, I'm interested in what rankings have done to higher education, and what are good ways and what are bad ways of assessing and evaluating institutions of higher education. So, that really is the focus of the book. In that sense, it's a very comprehensive look at the rankings phenomenon.

Mushtaq Gunja: I'm sure that most of our listeners, Colin, are familiar at least to some extent with at least the U.S. News & World Report rankings. I know you spend quite a bit of time in the book going through what comprises the rankings, what the methodology is, especially of U.S. News. I wonder if it might be useful for our listeners to get a little bit of a breakdown of what the methodology is, and what especially the U.S. News & World Report rankings cover.

Colin Diver: Well, my primary focus in the book is what I call best college rankings, which is what most people are familiar with and what U.S. News is, I think, the prominent example of. That is an attempt to take all of the immense variety of institutional characteristics and reduce them to a single metric, a single template, that then gets imposed on all these different hundreds of institutions. As a result of which, they get ranked ordinally from one to 400 or 600 or 800.

That's the primary target, but there are other specialized rankings that look more at a single sector. For example, there's rankings of historically Black colleges, there's rankings of Catholic colleges, there's rankings of women's colleges. There's also rankings based on single characteristics. There are rankings based on student ethnic diversity, for example, or social mobility. I try to cover all of those, but my primary target is the most influential form of rankings, which is the best college rankings.

What the best college rankings do, let's use U.S. News as the example since it is the 800-pound gorilla here, they take 17 different factors that are quantifiable and quantitative, and they choose those 17 out of the hundreds that they could choose. Then they assign equally arbitrary weights to each of those, combine them mathematically into a single score, and then they rank schools by inverse relation to their scores. So, the school that gets a score of 100 comes in first, and so it goes all the way down, as I say in the case of national universities, to 391.

That is, I think, utterly preposterous. It's preposterous, not only because it's fundamentally arbitrary and it's not justified by any scientific or scholarly demonstrations, but also because it's a straitjacket that in effect imposes uniformity on the enormously varied, wonderfully varied landscape of American higher education.

I think it's a little bit like saying we're going to rank all foods from best to worst. Well, number seven is pizza, and number eight is apples, and number nine is beef bourguignon. Well, that would be seen as absurd. Frankly, to come up as Wall Street Journal does, for example, with a ranking that says number 54 is the University of Florida, and number 55 is Mount Holyoke College is, to me, equally absurd. Those are two schools that are in completely different universes, and yet the rankers have sort of shoved them into a single template.

Frankly, if my hypothetical ranking of foods was as influential as the college rankings are, you can bet that pizza would start tasting a lot like apples, and apples would start tasting a lot like beef bourguignon.

Mushtaq Gunja: One of the things I learned from reading the book was the problem sort of compounds itself, because it's not just quantitative measures that we're looking at, but part of what comprises at least some of these rankings is some peer rankings, so that apples are being asked what's a better fruit, apples or beef bourguignon, and that seems problematic from a whole range of views. I know you had quite a bit to say about that portion of the rankings, at least on U.S. News & World Report. I wonder if you wanted to say anything more about that here?

Colin Diver: Yeah. U.S. News gives a lot of weight to what it calls peer assessment. In 2022, it gave 20% of the total weight in its formula to the cumulative opinions of college presidents and deans that they surveyed.
As I tried to explain in some detail, having been both a dean and a college president, you're not going to ever know enough about more than a handful of your so-called peers to be able to confidently assign them a rating on a scale of one to five that reflects their true overall academic quality. You'll know some things about many of these schools, but you won't know nearly enough to be able to say that the University of Florida is academically stronger than Mount Holyoke College.

Frankly, when you ask people to do that and they actually do it, what they're doing is they're echoing the previous year's rankings, because the one thing that we all know about the comparative quality of hundreds of schools is how they were ranked last year. Scholars have shown over and over that this is an echo chamber, so I think that's the fundamental problem with these peer evaluations.

Wall Street Journal also uses peer evaluations, and then there are a number of rankings that use student evaluations, which suffer from their own problems.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, it's funny, I think working in higher education, the number one question I always get from family members when they find out that I'm in higher ed, they say, "Is this a good school, or is that a good school?" When I start talking about the different aspects and the difference, you can't really compare Ohio State to, say, Miami University of Ohio. They're structured differently, they offer different things to their students.

It always comes back to this ranking system. It seems to have this hold on the consumer, that that's what they're going to look at. So, I think within higher education, there's this agreement that the rankings, that it really is this jumble of random things. It doesn't actually reflect whether or not it's going to be a good fit for a specific student.

Since you've published your book, Colin, have you seen any institutions besides Reed, maybe more selective institutions, move away from the ranking system? I found it fascinating, that even though Reed didn't participate, U.S. News still continued to rank you. So, even if selective colleges move away from it, U.S. News will still rank them. Have you seen this conversation move forward at all, especially among the selective institutions?

Colin Diver: Well, the book just came out in April of this year, so it's much too soon to talk about the impact of the book itself. I have seen in recent years, some movement in what I call the right direction. The percentage of presidents and deans who fill out the peer evaluation of the other institutions in their category has declined steadily over time. At one time, it was around 60% of the respondents who responded, and now it's down to about 33%.

I take that as a good sign. It means that a lot of these schools are recognizing that this is just a popularity contest, it's a beauty contest, it's silly. The refusal to cooperate by failing to send in the statistical questionnaire that U.S. News administers is a different story. At this point, only about 15% of schools refuse to do that.

Unfortunately, most of those are schools that are ranked down at the bottom of the U.S. News rankings, so it is still the case that the top tier schools, even while their presidents and deans publicly criticize the rankings left and right, are still filling out the forms and still cooperating with them. All I can do is preach and hope that some people in the audience will get my message.

Jon Fansmith: It's interesting, because I am struck by what Sarah said, because I've had the same conversations. My niece applied a couple years ago to college, my nephew is in that process now, and they ask the same way, "Is this a good school? Is this a better school than that school?"

Again, I encourage our listeners to go out and get a copy of the book and read it, it does a really, I think, thorough takedown of how really artificial and contrived these rankings are, but there's a clear demand for it, too. There's a clear interest, and it's a huge important purchase in people's lives. It's four years, when we're talking about selective institutions. People want to know more, they want to be informed as they make that choice.

When you look at the higher education landscape, given your breadth and depth of experience, do you see where an alternative might emerge that might knock the sort of ridiculous system that we've built up and that has been built up out of the way, and replace with something that's more meaningful or more valuable to students, or at least more helpful, maybe?

Colin Diver: Yeah. Well, as I say in the book, I don't believe any single system of evaluation is appropriate precisely for the reasons I stated earlier, which is, the genius of American higher education is the institutional variety that we have. So, my hope over the years has been that at least the U.S. News monopoly will cease to dominate, and that there will be a multiplicity of rankings using different methodologies, and getting at least a decent amount of traction.

That has happened. U.S. News was the monopolist, it still is by the way in law schools, which is a part of my history, and I talk about it a lot in the book. I think one of the reasons why law students are slavishly attracted to the U.S. News law school rankings, and therefore the law schools are slavishly attracted to improving their rankings, is because U.S. News has a monopoly. Fortunately, in colleges and universities, you also have multiple individual best college rankings, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Money, Niche, et cetera, but you also have all these specialized rankings.

My advice to applicants is, don't start by asking, “What is the best college?” Start by asking, who am I, and what is it that I love and want? What is it that I'm looking for in a four-year experience, if we're talking about a four year college, which is frankly what we're talking about in the rankings universe. Then, sure, turn to the rankings, but ignore the numbers and look at the information, and try to figure out what is a good fit for you.

Look at multiple rankings, don't just look at U.S. News. In fact, start with The Washington Monthly, which is an oddball kind of ranking because they're trying to rank based on what the college does for the community, which is very different from the obvious prestige and wealth focus of U.S. News, and for that matter several of the others I mentioned.

Then look at the US Department of Education's College Scorecard, which has wonderful information, and you can pick out what information interests you and you can do your own comparisons. All these websites allow you to compare schools based on your criteria.

So, there's a ton of things you can do, but the one thing I really would love to communicate is picking a college is not simple and it shouldn't be simple. It is a big, messy, complicated decision. It's on the order of what career should I choose, or should I buy this old house or that old house? Or maybe even, what life partner should I choose? It's a big, tough, complicated decision, and you shouldn't try to simplify it, and that's what rankings do. They lure you into thinking you can simplify what shouldn't be simplified.

Mushtaq Gunja: Colin, since you are handing out advice, I was hoping that you might be able to give us some as well. As you know, ACE has recently partnered with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to have the Carnegie Classification system sort of reside here at ACE, at least for the next few years.

Part of the project will be to create a new social and economic mobility classification that will sit alongside the basic classification. As we are putting this together, do you have advice for me, for the team, for how we might think about putting this classification together? Things that we should be concerned about as we think through fairly grouping and then describing the great diversity of higher education in this country?

Colin Diver: Well, as you know from the book, social mobility is, to me, the primary goal of higher education. It is not just to perpetuate privilege. It is in effect to provide a ladder, to provide an opportunity for people who have been disadvantaged for any number of reasons. It may be their race or their ethnicity, it may be their socioeconomic background, it may be their ability or disability.

So, there are, of course, well-established, now, measures of social mobility. I think Raj Chetty and his researchers at Harvard's Opportunity Insights have kind of pioneered this research. But I think that the method should, obviously like their method, focus on two variables. One is the number or the percentage of low income students that a school admits. Then, secondly, how successfully they move them up the economic ladder. That is, how successfully they get them to graduate on time and how successfully they steer them into successful careers.

I hate to use money as the only measure of successful careers, and that's maybe one of the things that you might want to look at. There are ways of measuring career satisfaction, as well as career earnings, but you have to give credit to schools that do both well. They admit lots of low income students and they move them up to successful lives.

Those are the schools that should get a high classification. I realize it's going to be a subsidiary classification, and the Carnegie Classifications that matter the most will still be research one, for example, which everybody now sees as a symbol of prestige, but the more prominence you can give to social mobility, I think the better it will be.

Mushtaq Gunja: That’s very helpful. We’re hoping that the social mobility classification will not be subsidiary, each institution will have both a basic classification and a social and economic mobility classification. Sure, one has been around for 50 years, so might at least in the first instance have a little bit more cachet in the world. But over time, certainly we're hoping that we'll be able to have that other classification matter a whole lot too, and we'll need your help, Colin.

Colin Diver: I'd be glad to help. I do think that there is a momentum now among the selective colleges and universities to increase their social mobility, and God bless them. When I was on the board at Amherst College, the then president, Tony Marks, made it a big priority to increase social mobility at Amherst, and with a good deal of success. Frankly, I think he inspired a lot of other schools, dare I say even Williams College, their primary competitor, to follow suit. I'd love to see Princeton and Harvard and Yale and Stanford say, "We are going to take the lead on social mobility." I bet it would produce a parade of virtue.

Sarah Spreitzer: So, Colin, I know Breaking Ranks just came out in April, but is that the topic of your next book? Are you starting to think already, what's the next thing to look at in this very rich area of higher education, looking at the rankings?

Colin Diver: Well, there are two things that are on my mind, one is the vast ecology of non-selective, or not very selective, colleges and universities, which I just didn't speak to in this book because the rankings don't really speak to them.

Rankings are relevant only to about 400 to 800 four-year schools, and that leaves something like over 3000 four-year schools, which do much of the most important work in our higher education industry. They educate so many of the students of color, and the poor, and lower class and socioeconomically deprived, and academically challenged kids, and the older students with families to take care of. So I would love to see what we can say about how they can stand up and be counted in a world which is so totally dominated by a handful of super elite schools.

Then, the other thing, which is a little bit related, is that I'm really curious to know if there is any way that we could combine elitism and a high degree of selectivity with a high degree of social mobility. How would we go about constructing a set of schools and moving a group of schools, so that there was the equivalent of the Ivy League? Maybe it would include some members of the Ivy League. But they would not only be the great reinforcers of privilege in our society, which is what they still are, but they would be the great engines of social mobility and still be regarded as the best schools in the land. I would love to see a way for that to happen. It could be done, I suppose, if you had a few multi-billionaires who wanted to create such a school by giving them an endowment of $100 billion or something. But short of that, I'd like to try to figure out how to do that.

Jon Fansmith: I think that would be certainly something we would be keeping an eye out for, because I know at least at ACE we have those conversations all the time, about how do you incentivize institutions to take on a larger share of low-income students? You covered this in the book, the percentage of low income students at selective institutions. Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Colin Diver: A very big problem that I talk about, and that stands in the way of that, is the hypercompetitive nature of higher education. Like it or not, and the antitrust laws favor this, it is a hypercompetitive industry, so all these colleges at the top have an incentive to spend more per student.

They don't have an incentive to educate more students. I talk in there about what I think the top schools are really competing on is surplus. That is, the difference between the amount they spend per student and the amount they charge per student. If you look at that surplus figure, it has quadrupled in the last 20, 30 years.

Amherst and Williams are now spending $100,000 per year per student just on the educational program. That doesn't include room and board type expenses. $100,000 per year. Even for full pay students, they're only being charged $60,000, so they're all getting a huge subsidy, a huge subsidy. Why, in America, do we want to have a gigantic subsidy given to the children of millionaires? But that's what we have. I'd like to see if we could turn that around somehow.

Jon Fansmith: That would be a wonderful thing to do. I will say, I read those numbers to my wife as I was reading your book, and she demanded to actually see the book, because she didn't believe me. So, it is a staggering, staggering number, and thank you for raising that point.

Colin Diver: Yeah.

Jon Fansmith: I also wanted to thank you for taking the time to join us today. I cannot again say highly enough to our listeners, this is a really fascinating book. If you'll forgive me, it is not dense academic text. This is a very approachable book, and it covers a huge range of things that we care about in the higher education space in a really succinct, and I think, very thoughtful way. So, I want to thank you first for putting the book together, but especially for joining us here today.

Colin Diver: Well, my pleasure, and I hope you're right. Let's get people to read my book.

Jon Fansmith: We'll do our best, and we'll keep an eye out for those next projects, too.

Colin Diver: Okay.

Sarah Spreitzer: As always podcast friends, you can check out earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU on Apple, Google Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

For show notes and links to the resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at ACE net.edu/podcast. While there, please take a short survey to let us know how we're doing. You can also email us at podcast@ACEnet.edu to give us suggestions on upcoming shows and guests.

A very big thank you to the producers who helped pull this podcast together, Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, Malcolm Moore, Anthony Truehart, Hisani Stenson, and Fatma Gom. They do an incredible job making this happen and making Jon, Mushtaq, and I sound as good as possible. Finally, thank you so much for listening.


About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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