Duke University

The college “rankings” came out this week, and three North Carolina schools earned places in the Top 30.

This was not the football poll. Duke, Wake Forest and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may not make that listing this fall. It was more important.

The U.S. News & World Report ratings count for a lot in the world of higher education — although they always trigger debates about whether they should. Nevertheless, Duke can boast about its ninth-place position among national universities. Wake Forest is No. 27, and UNC-CH is 30th. They’re notable institutions, with excellent schools of business, law, medicine and other academic disciplines.

That’s not to overlook other outstanding North Carolina colleges and universities, which are ranked in other categories. Davidson, for example, places 10th among National Liberal Arts Colleges.

What distinguishes one college or university from another? Money is a big part of the equation. Private schools dominate the top of the rankings. They have large endowments, pay high salaries for accomplished faculty members and charge tuition and fees around $50,000 a year. In every way, they are elite institutions.

The first public, or state, institutions among national universities are the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-Los Angeles, tied for 21st. Then come the University of Virginia at 25, the University of Michigan at 28 and UNC-CH at 30. All charge residents of their states considerably less to attend, thanks to taxpayer subsidies.

Public universities are supposed to serve the people of their state. North Carolina’s constitution says the benefits of higher education should be provided free of cost, to the extent “practicable.” What that term means can be debated endlessly.

It’s apparent from a new report, however, that none of the nation’s Top 30 universities, public or private, serves an economically representative student body.

The Equality of Opportunity Project, which studies access and affordability issues, looked at how many students come from families with incomes in the top 1 percent and how many come from families with incomes in the lowest 60 percent. Duke and Wake Forest both enroll more students from the former category — about 20 percent — than from the latter, according to data covering the years 2000 to 2011.

UNC-CH’s enrollment was about 5 percent “1-percenters” and only about 20 percent from the bottom 60 percent. Its balance is significantly out of whack, but less so than what’s seen at elite private institutions.

Two Triad private universities, Elon and High Point, saw enrollment of the 1 percent increase and the 60 percent drop during that same period. In 2006, more than 40 percent of High Point students came from bottom-60 percent families; by 2011, that had fallen to less than 15 percent.

Researchers note that affluent students are more likely to help universities climb in the rankings because wealth is strongly associated with academic achievement. And, because they require less financial aid to attend, these students are good for a college’s bottom line. While Elon and High Point are moving in the direction of schools like Duke and Wake Forest, they do not yet attract as many students from the wealthiest families. But they have incentives to do so.

Greensboro, of course, is a college town — and its institutions are more likely to reflect the general population. N.C. A&T, UNC-Greensboro and Bennett, Guilford and Greensboro colleges don’t attract many students from the 1 percent and enroll plenty of students from the lower 60 percent. It appears they generally serve the middle class, providing at least the chance for students to rise above modest circumstances. That’s what higher education should do — whether it’s recognized on college rankings or not. The elite universities, for all their undeniable contributions to our nation, also help maintain the upper class.

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