Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 1, 2006
By: T.A. Frank

Over at Stats.org, Rebecca Goldin has thrown an unfriendly tomato at the Washington Monthlys college rankings, calling our efforts bizarre and absurd. She also describes the Monthly itself as a scrappy political magazine perpetually strapped for cash. Well, on the latter point, no fair give us something we can refute.

But, to return to the former, I think, quite frankly, Dr. Goldin misses the point of the rankings. (Unless shes talking about our desperate bid to attract credulous media coverage and sell magazines, which, of course, is always a point.) The first indication of the trouble comes when Goldin writes that we have weird metrics for distinguishing academic brilliance and that the idea that there are over one hundred better college choices than Cal Tech suggests that the Monthly has demoted common sense and elevated the absurd.

Hang on now: that idea isnt one that were floating. As the guide explains, we arent measuring academic brilliance, if by that one means the quality of the learning (for more on why, see this piece), and we certainly arent saying that prospective students have one hundred better college choices than Cal Tech. As we make clear, this isnt a guide to where you should park your tuition dollars. Its a guide that offers plaudits to schools that are giving back to the country and attempts view the idea of best through a different prism: not whats best for you, but best for the country. (In the debate over whether Americans have the best healthcare in the world the same issues arise: best for whom?) You might not like our emphasisindeed, Goldin does not (The Washington Monthlys Misplaced Values is the heading of one section) but thats really a separate issue from whether we meet our goals.

So do we meet our goals? Well, there's no doubt that if we had all the data we wanted to have, theres a lot more that wed include in our measurements. But any measurements are limited by the simple fact that, as Rummy might say, you go to rankings with the data you have. Overall, I think we did pretty well.

But that doesnt seem to be what fundamentally gets under Goldins skin anyway. Rather, its the very goals we set out that seem to bother her. Rankings should reflect how good a job a university does at fulfilling its mission, she informs us, and the university mission is not primarily social mobility or community service, but research and education. I see. I thought the point of our rankings was to challenge precisely such notions, to broaden the university mission and highlight other worthy priorities. Maybe people will agree and maybe they wont, but anyone who doesnt care about our priorities doesnt have to care about our list. For that matter, Dr. Goldin is free to come up with her own priorities and make her own list. Hey we did.

T.A. Frank 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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I love the idea behind the rankings. It shouldn't be novel to think that the purpose of a university is to positively impact society, not set up its students for financial reward.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: exhuming mccarthy on September 1, 2006 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Well I liked WM's approach. My experience is that quality of education at the college level has a lot more to do with the student's motivation than the institution's curriculum and professors. Besides, skill and reputation in an academic arena have little to do with the ability to communicate and teach.

Posted by: Del Capslock on September 1, 2006 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

She's just pissed off because she's not Forbes' most powerful women list.

Posted by: craigie on September 1, 2006 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Good for you. Your criteria are rooting out some meaningful nuggets.

If you're an undergraduate student, and not a professor, the amount of research published in "major" journals by the faculty at your college or university is of secondary concern, if of concern at all. What matters to students is how well the teachers teach, not how well they research and write.

In graduate school, the situation changes, and you want to be working alongside those doing the best academic work, but by then you should have been prepared well enough to learn on your own.

I've therefore long recommended to high-school students that they seek out small liberal-arts schools for undergraduate study. But they often don't listen and opt for the school with the big-name football teams and Greek rows.

Anything that can help them understand there's more to college than sports and toga parties is a good thing.

Posted by: Cal Gal on September 1, 2006 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

A query on method--and one, I promise, motivated by curiosity rather than any desire to defend my employer, Princeton University (I'm a graduate of the University of Chicago, which trained us to express the degree of our loyalty by the sharpness of our criticism). Some private universities--including Princeton and Yale--have their own programs for sending graduates to teach or serve in other ways in Asia, Africa and elsewhere (including the United States). Did Washington Monthly factor these in to its analysis of how much these universities contribute to the public good?

Posted by: tony grafton on September 1, 2006 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Read other articles by her. She's a critic. She pans everything she covers.

(how would one throw a 'friendly' tomato?)

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on September 1, 2006 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

I just have one small point to make -- ask almost any Caltech alum (of which I am one) or student, and they will happily tell you that for most people, there are indeed well over one hundred better college choices than Tech. Social life is purgatorial. Your GPA will likely be a full point lower than it would have been anywhere else. The faculty is indeed brilliant, but many of them are terrible teachers and/or want nothing to do with undergrads. It gives you an awesome science education, but it's incredibly narrow, and if you don't know what you want to do by the end of your first year, it's easy to get in real trouble. Plus the work really is ridiculous -- I pulled three all-nighters a week throughout the entirety of my junior year. And I had *good* study habits.

By the metrics used by US News, Caltech does great, of course -- small student body, lots of faculty, tons of money, highly prestigious. But the experience of being a student there is pretty miserable even if you're one of the few people who really belongs there. There's nothing at all absurd about the suggestion that there are a hundred "better" colleges even if you're narrowly focusing on academic value to the individual student.

Which is just to second this post's point that the value of an institution is highly contingent.

Posted by: Mike Russo on September 1, 2006 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Who has ever read anything by Bliss Perry?

Posted by: Ace Franze on September 1, 2006 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Anything that can help them understand there's more to college than sports and toga parties is a good thing.

Of course there is more: casual sex, drug experimentation, and T1 lines in the dorms for faster on-line gaming.

Posted by: party dude on September 1, 2006 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

We certainly arent saying that prospective students have one hundred better college choices than Cal Tech.

Like Mike Russo above, I think you should be saying that there may be one hundred better choices than Cal Tech, because otherwise you're taking a one-size-fits-all approach to matching colleges to students, which is ridiculous. For example, take Cal Tech's academic program and find the absolute bottom of the barrel department, or specialization within a department, or even a discipline not covered by the program at all. It's perfectly reasonable to think that there are students out there who want the best education in that area as possible, and that there may be 100 better choices for them.

Alternatively, you might just ask about the tradeoff between flunking out of Cal Tech versus getting an easier degree from a lesser institution.

Posted by: RSA on September 1, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Washington Monthly's ranking of Colleges and Universities is incredibly insightful, penetrating, clarifying, edifying, and contains a truthiness that US News and World Report can only dream of achieving. And the fact that I work at Penn State (#3 in WM rankings) has nothing to do with that opinion.

Plus we were ranked #2 party school in the nation behind UT Austin.

Posted by: Red State Mike on September 1, 2006 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

At the risk of attacking the attacker and not objectively evaluating her position, perhaps there's another motive at work. After an admittedly quick look at the stats.org website, it seems to have its own decidedly conservative bias. It's criticisms may or may not be correct - but it oftem seems to find fault with the NY Times reporting and not so much with that of the Washington Times. Hmmm.

Posted by: Bob on September 1, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

It's worth quoting Penn State's own mission statement (representative of others, I'm sure) to see what they think their job is...

Penn State is a multicampus public research university that improves the lives of the people of Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world through integrated, high-quality programs in teaching, research, and service.

...Our research, scholarship, and creative activities promote human and economic development through the expansion of knowledge and its applications...As Pennsylvania's land-grant university, we also hold a unique responsibility to provide access, outreach, and public service to support the citizens of the Commonwealth and beyond...generate, disseminate, integrate, and apply knowledge.

Posted by: Red State Mike on September 1, 2006 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

I especially like WM's service university category, not least because my alma mater William & Mary placed 2nd in the nation. Also, solid side article on Teach For America.

Posted by: Dan-O on September 1, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

My father is an alum of the American University of beirut; I have an AUB tee shirt with a latin motto that translates to "That they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly." Jesus said it, BTW. The point of the AUB and similar schools across the Middle East was to improve the lives of the people and societies of the region. Social mobility fueled by economic progress which is fueled by education, research and application. You know, engineering and medicine and agriculture.

What are land grant universities? What are liberal arts colleges founded as seminaries and mission schools (my own college here in California, Mills)

The zeitgeist in this country has really changed if a pundit can scoff at the idea that a university has a mission to contribute to the public good. Our culture has gone insane.

Posted by: Leila A. on September 1, 2006 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't looked at this year's "methology" statement, but last year's showed the ranking to be utterly incompetent even in relation to it's own stated purpose. I explained why here.

Posted by: David Velleman on September 1, 2006 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

I think your rankings are highly relevant. I was recently asked to participate in a survey of Georgia Tech alumni. When asked what the university should be doing better and/or what would make me more inclined to give money, I responded by pointing them to your rankings - move up on the value you present my country and my community. Today I received a Georgia Tech publication that touted the institution as producing more minority engineers than any other school.

Posted by: scarolina on September 1, 2006 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

I am a Caltech alum. (Could people maybe spell it right?) One of the draws for me was that at the time I attended, this institute of 900 undergraduates had four Nobel Prize winners among the faculty (including, of course, Dick Feynman).

I phrased it as "more Nobel laureates per square professor than any other college"...

Posted by: eyelessgame on September 1, 2006 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

At PSU, our #3 result in your ranking was a source of pride for the university. We are paying attention, keep up the good work.

Posted by: sunship on September 1, 2006 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

At Penn State hack research which does nothing to contribute to the extension of knowledge, but helps the bottom line of some company can be rewarded with promotion and tenure. The following is a passage from the UniSCOPE report (p. 14) which served as the basis for altering the P&T guidelines.

A key premise of the UniSCOPE model is that all forms of scholarship should be recognized equitably. A corollary is that each form of scholarship teaching, research, and service should be recognized for its primary product. That is, if resident education is recognized as a valued product, then extension and continuing education should receive equivalent recognition. If basic research is recognized for contributions to knowledge through refereed publications, whether or not its insights are applied in the field, then applied research should be recognized for applications in the field, whether or not insights from the experience are extended to the literature. This is not to suggest that lessons from applications should not be communicated in the literature and theoretical insights ought not to be tested in the field. The issue is that while the logical extensions of scholarship should be encouraged, each type of scholarship should be recognized mainly for its own inherent contribution.
When you hear "economic developement", think corporate whore. And when you hear "land grant", think corporate whorehouse. Posted by: veblen on September 1, 2006 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

I like the idea behind the alternative rankings. I think the methodology, however, gives too much weight to ROTC programs. The reason should be obvious, but maybe not to acolytes of TNR-style "muscular liberalism".

Posted by: luci on September 1, 2006 at 6:37 PM | PERMALINK

Until quite recently, the reason for the land-grant schools and many small colleges was social mobility and community service. For many years business said "Give them a good general education and we'll train them in the details of our business".

Then it occurred to some businesses that they could have the general public pay the costs of their basic research, and it occurred to others that they would play the bankruptcy shell game to get rid of their older workers, so why would they want to train anyone?

Meanwhile, small minds in academe were playing a game called "publish or perish", and other small minds were figuring how to make rote memorization look like an education.

Fortunately, students can still choose what they want to learn, and the smart ones realize that your grade point is much more important than the name of your undergrad school when you want to go on to bigger things.

The best schools in the country are pretty much unknown- except to the people who can benefit from what they have to offer. It's a shame that the great land-grant schools have lost their way, especially because we don't seem to be better "educated" or produce better research than other similar countries. The fact that we produce more "education" and research is an artifact, produced by the large size of the country, and one that can be swamped by the integration of other regional economies.

Still, the bottom line on education is this- it's the one thing you spend your money on that they can never take away from you. That's a powerful fact, if you use it wisely.

Posted by: serial catowner on September 1, 2006 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

Anyone who is unhappy that Cal Tech didn't come out on top has the wrong goals. Cal Tech and its primary competitors achieve top rankings in their graduates primarily by selecting the most capable students to join them.

There is a position for institutions that do that, but its ranking is primarily based on how carefully it selects its' students, not on how well it provides education. It is very much an educational hothouse environment for a unique clientele.

How about rankings for the schools which take the less promising students and turn out the best graduates? That used to be the role of Texas A&M until it got so large it had to stop taking any high school graduate, and it did it very well.

As you say, Kevin, it really depends on what your goals were in your rankings. She doesn't like your goals, that's all.

Posted by: Rick B on September 1, 2006 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

Good show, old pal!

Posted by: ppk on September 1, 2006 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

Ugg, you were too nice, I thought a place called Stats.org might be interesting and followed the link...

While the piece is dripping with unprofessional tone, she does make some points, and I wonder if they are accurate - any chance you might address them?

She turned me off though, with here mickey mouse analysis... .01% is less than 1% less than 1%! Really? There are much more valid ways of addressing the statistical validity of an argument, but she does not use them.

Is this representative of George Mason U? I thought that was a real university with a conservative slant, maybe that is the tail wagging the dog.

And as a postdoc at caltech, a) spell it right!! and b) if you put PhD after your name, I assume you are a hack.

Posted by: BoulderDuck on September 1, 2006 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

I think college rankings are crap, anyway.

Posted by: BroD on September 2, 2006 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: 联通铃声下载 on September 3, 2006 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

Caltech is rated unfairly because some of the criteria are not adjusted for the size of the college. It is as if you rated states on total spending on education instead of on spending per student. Caltech suffers because it is a small school.

Posted by: James B. Shearer on September 3, 2006 at 10:20 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: lopoo on September 4, 2006 at 6:00 AM | PERMALINK

WM's use of the phrase "academic excellence" isn't quite appropriate, but these kinds of rankings could be good for analyzing a short list of schools.

For example, a highly talented physics student absolutely should go to CalTech or MIT instead of Penn State or Texas A&M if they get in and can afford it. But once the student has narrowed their list to CalTech, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, and Harvey Mudd, alternative methods seem more likely to give an appropriate second filter. No idea if WM's rankings really mean anything, but it's nice to see alternative methods being pushed around.

(This to address the needs of a college applicant. There is also, of course, the awarding of philanthropic grant money and more generally non-academic reputation to consider.)

Posted by: Mike on September 4, 2006 at 6:18 AM | PERMALINK



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