Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 2, 2009

BACK TO SCHOOL.... Today the Washington Monthly releases its annual College Rankings. It's our alternative to U.S. News & World Report's rankings, which we find objectionable for a number of reasons (see "A Different Kind of College Ranking"). Whereas U.S. News relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of money and prestige, we rank schools based on what they are doing for the country -- by improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service.

The Washington Monthly's unique methodology yields strikingly different results:

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* Only one of the U.S. News top ten universities -- Stanford -- makes the Washington Monthly's top ten, while high profile institutions such as Princeton, Duke and Penn fail to even crack Washington Monthly's Top 25.

* Some of top universities on the Washington Monthly list, like South Carolina State (#6) and Jackson State (#22), are non-elite "red state" schools buried in the lowest tiers of the U.S. News list.

* While all the top twenty U.S. News universities are private, thirteen of the top twenty Washington Monthly universities are public.

* The University of California system grabs the top three slots-including number-one-ranked Berkeley -- even as the state of California is slashing higher education funding.

* Women's liberal arts colleges score well in the Washington Monthly rankings, with Mount Holyoke, Smith, Bryn Mawr and Wellesley all in the Top 10. Historically black institutions, such as Spelman and Morehouse, also make strong showings.

We want people to use this information to change the way they think about colleges and universities, the first step toward changing the institutions themselves. And make no mistake: with tuition rising faster than health care costs, big changes are necessary, and they're coming. That's why we're also proud to announce the debut of our new College Guide Web site, devoted to higher education reform -- a subject we believe will be one of the big emerging stories of the coming decade. Take a look.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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* While all the top twenty U.S. News universities are private, thirteen of the top twenty Washington Monthly universities are public.

So, proof the public option destroys the free market and leads us down down the road to death panels and socialism!

Posted by: martin on September 2, 2009 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

The University of California system grabs the top three slots-including number-one-ranked Berkley -- even as the state of California is slashing higher education funding.

And even as this blog continues to go without a proofreader.

Steve, come on. These constant misspellings, punctuation errors and missing words do you damage of a kind.

Posted by: shortstop on September 2, 2009 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting -- the two big "monster" public universities in Texas (UT and A&M) both make the top ten. Good lord, there may be hope for us yet.

Thank God the neo-secessionists down here don't read Washington Monthly.

Posted by: Andy on September 2, 2009 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Gee... sorta Dims vs. Repugnants on the ol' college scene, eh?

Go Bears! (give 'em the axe ad infinitum...)

Posted by: neill on September 2, 2009 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

One can understand the practical need for socialism fear . One does typically strain a bit though in focussing a remorseless , pitiless , leonine ferocity at the , a , death panel . Perhaps an exercise program to strengthen the weak death panel reflex is in order , for 19.99$ at your local "Steele trap & Atavastic Boutique and Also ™" .

Posted by: FRP on September 2, 2009 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

I have serious qualms about rating a school on anything BUT academic, research, and teaching quality. After all, that's why I'd want to attend a school, not because it allowed me to join ROTC.

The mobility criterion doesn't make sense either. Since community colleges do most to make higher education available to those who wouldn't otherwise get it, it'd seem that they'd be the top college in America. Besides, even if I were one of those most likely to be representative of the gain in mobility given my family background, I'd be angling for the most demanding school I could, not just for one that accepts others like me.

Finally, as one of those who protested the Vietnam war and rejoiced when ROTC was kicked off campus, the third of three criteria is downright offensive. I'd reverse it and make schools that the rating excludes dramatically uprated relative to how US News does it. I'll note, too, that if the idea is to benefit the poor and minority groups, those are precisely the groups that a volunteer army would pick off, given limited opportunities.

In sum, not just on academic and teaching merits, but even on grounds of societal benefits, the ratings are offensive.

Posted by: John Haber on September 2, 2009 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting -- the two big "monster" public universities in Texas (UT and A&M) both make the top ten. Good lord, there may be hope for us yet.

Oh, those join NASA and the military bases in moving to the U.S. after the secession.

Posted by: shortstop on September 2, 2009 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

I wish you could cancel your subscription for a month and add it to the end, this is the worst issue every year. These rankings are ridiculous, show me someone who chooses Jackson St. over Harvard and I'll show you an idiot. If you want to compalian about the methodology used by US Newsm, fine, but this stuff is garabage.

Posted by: Tom on September 2, 2009 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, even for this blog, I don't understand the hostility. They ranked schools according to a set of criteria which they disclosed. If WM's definition of a good school doesn't match your own, don't use the rankings. Why are people (of all stripes) so committed to having the only right answer?

Since everyone has different criteria, there's no such thing as "the best" university. There's just the university that best matches your criteria.

Get over yourselves.

Posted by: Bernard Gilroy on September 2, 2009 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

As a parent who is about to put a kid through college I am insulted. You should be writing about how Univerities (all) are hording money not to mentin raping parents and students alike with ridiculous tuition costs. Even my HS grad with honors, Magna Cum luade, 790 on SAT can't get reasonable school aide...and no we do not make a lot of money. We are middle, middle class.
You should be attacking these schools not praising them.

Posted by: fence sitter on September 2, 2009 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

fence sitter: sounds like yer child needs aid not an aide, even tho it seems to have taken quaaludes in high school on a magnum scale, it still scored 790 on the sat -- go for the money not the tutor.

or to paraphrase frank zappa, quit school and go to the library: educate yourself.

Posted by: neill on September 2, 2009 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

Having read the plethora of posts over at Unqualified Offerings from their resident PhD who wonders quite often why we consistently push people into the PhD track when there quite clearly aren't enough jobs in academia for them at the end of the road, I find the emphasis on producing PhD's for PhD's sake a bit baffling here.

Posted by: socratic_me on September 2, 2009 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Amazing! Ignorance personafied. Ever wonder why people are so asinine?!

While all the top twenty U.S. News universities are private, thirteen of the top twenty Washington Monthly universities are public.

So, proof the public option destroys the free market and leads us down down the road to death panels and socialism!

Posted by: martin on September 2, 2009 at 11:47 AM

Apparently this tart has never been to college.

Posted by: Michael on September 2, 2009 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

It's great that someone is considering social mobility; I think this is a wonderful addition to the rankings.

Colleges are over priced institutions that are only necessary in a hyper-competitive environment where even an empty credential is a basic entry requirement to the job market.

If my kids really love an academic subject, I'll pay the freight to the state school (or the equivalent freight). Otherwise, they can learn a trade, or their tution money can go to starting a business. They're not going to be starting life crippled by debt, and they'll have more security than someone with a degree who is always waiting for the next person to hire them.

And the EEOC needs to add "educational status" to its list of start cracking down on unjustified preferential hiring and promotion for people with college degrees. Note the "unjustified." College can offer a lot, but many times having or not having a degree doesn't guarantee a fucking thing.

But education is the holy grail of the middle class so this is sacrilege.

This has been my annual college-review rant.

Posted by: inkadu on September 2, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with Bernard. The criteria are fully disclosed and if you don't like them, go with USN&WR. Personally, I feel better about my child learning in a more diverse environment and being exposed to a wider range of opinions and perspectives.

My daughter is attending her first year at UC Santa Cruz, and I was happy to see it ranked at #56. Although we visited a number of campuses, this one was clearly the best fit for her and best reflected her values and what she wanted to accomplish scholastically.

I never bought into the arguments from people who obsess over college rankings and use them as the absolute criteria in measuring the worth of a particular campus. If a school is accredited and has demonstrated a certain level of competence, a student can achieve as much there as they could at Harvard or some other "elite" institution. Those places are only indispensable if you are intent on climbing the corporate rungs of power (no thank you).

Don't get me wrong. A lot of extremely talented people (and great human beings) graduate from these institutions every year. But these schools are not a prerequisite for higher educational achievement.

Posted by: bdop4 on September 2, 2009 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Bernard Gilroy's remarks are worth repeating -- WM "ranked schools according to a set of criteria which they disclosed. If WM's definition of a good school doesn't match your own, don't use the rankings."

Truly. I bet everyone of you are anxiously awaiting MTV's rankings of the top partying schools. I appreciate the different take that WM provides and the fact they compiled it for me.

Thank WM.

Posted by: coral on September 2, 2009 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Seems like it takes heap of MBAs, including an "MBA President", to trash an economy. Have any of these institutions of higher education reviewed their MBA programs to determine what they might be doing wrong?

Posted by: Dennis-SGMM on September 2, 2009 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, Steve. I'm a UC graduate. It's Berkeley, not Berkley.

Posted by: daveb99 on September 2, 2009 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Some of top universities on the Washington Monthly list, like South Carolina State (#6) and Jackson State (#22), are non-elite "red state" schools buried in the lowest tiers of the U.S. News list.

SC State is so high in the overall rankings because 71% of their students receive Pell grants and they push 45% of their students through with a piece of paper (whether or not they can pass any required licensure exams)?

Posted by: Pee Cee on September 2, 2009 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

OT, yelp for help.

My Political Animal seems to have stuck; this is the last posting that'll come up and it's now after 2PM... How can I "unstick" the beast?

Posted by: exlibra on September 2, 2009 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Exlibra, try refreshing again. I just did, and finally got the daily roundup with a time stamp of 2:00. I guess Steve was busy for a while.

Posted by: Michael W on September 2, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

UNO has a low graduation rate. I'll go ponder why that is while I sit on the levee at the edge of campus gazing at the London Avenue canal.

Posted by: milo on September 2, 2009 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Pleased as I am by your magazine's different emphasis, and that my alma mater earned a top spot, I have to quibble with some of your criteria. So not allowing the ROTC on campus makes you a bad public citizen? Maybe those campuses don't believe in encouraging military recruitment (especially during a period of wasteful, unjust war)? IIR, public universities allow ROTC because they have no choice, whereas privates like Harvard can afford to deny them.

Also, I don't like the idea that a university's public worth is measured by how many Ph.Ds and scientists it creates -- first, it discounts the amount of good that liberal arts majors do, even if they only earn a B.A. or an M.A., and encourages an even greater shift of scarce resources from the humanities to the sciences. Why must Washington Monthly participate in the devaluing of right-brain thinkers? We already suffer enough on the income scale.

Posted by: wilder on September 2, 2009 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, no offense to you of course, and I know you're pushed to push the WM print editions, but for the love of Pete. why wouldn't Paul Glastris put more emphasis (and $$) on this website than print editions of anything? This website, with all it's flash ads and 90s-era construction (and virtually no updates but for the ads and your blog) makes it impossible to believe that the WM print editions could be less gaudy and out-dated.

Posted by: MissMudd on September 2, 2009 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

The liberal arts college rankings are misleading, as it leaves out "regional universities". Whether a small school labels itself "regional" or "liberal arts" has more to do with marketing and recruitment that any sustentative difference in quality.

Posted by: J. Frank Parnell on September 2, 2009 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Jeez. Echo everything said about the ROTC ranking bit -- and the smugness of "we don't think it's a legitimate point of principle to ban ROTC" is particularly nauseating.

Posted by: Laura Clawson on September 2, 2009 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

This is easily the most ridiculous college ranking set I have ever seen. Oral Roberts University makes the list? I hear their classes on 'God killing people unless their followers donate money' are really good.

The real deal is paying for private undergraduate is stupid. Do the math, would you rather have:

-a degree from a state school in the US (or Canada or Europe) and a $100,000 trust fund

or

-$100,000 in student loans to accompany your degree from a private school.

Posted by: Professor s on September 2, 2009 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, these rankings are so patently ridiculous that they diminish the whole credibility of the magazine. If this is how WM evaluates the relative merit of colleges and universities, I sure don't want your opinions on much more complex public policy issues. Please tell me that your promotion of these rankings on your blog does not mean that you endorse the methodology.

Posted by: Ryan on September 2, 2009 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

An interesting alternative to US News & WR's rankings (which many universities actively, consciously base strategic decisions on, in hopes of climbing up the list). While I disagree with some of the categories in the WM list, at least it does offer a different way to look at things. One problem that we encounter in Texas is that the Legislature and Higher Education Board have chosen to concentrate most of their funding on two universities: UT in Austin and A&M in College Station. The belief is that the state doesn't have enough money to distribute elsewhere, and those who want the "best" education should go to one of the top-tier schools (regardless of whether those universities have the strongest programs across the board). UT is more "diverse" than A&M, in terms of its profile and student population, but A&M ranks higher, in large part because of its #2 ranking for ROTC. But keep in mind that most of the highly homogeneous (white, conservative) A&M student population has little interest in public service outside of military service (for the record, I think that military service is beneficial). And A&M doesn't have nearly as strong of an arts program. In fact, UT isn't necessarily the premier arts university in the state, but the arts have always been underfunded (which is obvious in WM's emphasis on science research funding).

As for research funding, especially in the sciences, did you consider how much of the money comes from pharmaceuticals and other medical companies? Is more research funding necessarily desirable if there is pressure to produce results that please the corporate benefactors?

One other issue (and, admittedly, I haven't had time to read the entire explanation of the methodology, etc.): Did this ranking investigate the percentage of science/engineering students who are international and intend to return home after completing their education? Is that a desirable trait for this list? My anecdotal experience is that engineering majors at my institution are mostly international, making them ineligible for Pell Grants. It seems that these two categories (Pell Grants versus science/engineering Ph.D.'s) could have an antagonistic relationship in the way that you rank schools.

And finally, as others have mentioned, why are we still pushing the Ph.D.? There are already far more Ph.D.'s on the market than available jobs, and I personally think it's unethical for universities to recruit more graduate students than the academic and research market can handle. That's especially true in the liberal arts and humanities (as someone else pointed out, your method of distinguishing between "universities" and "liberal arts" is somewhat questionable--some of the schools in the "universities" category have strong liberal arts program but don't get as much research funding because of the liberal arts emphasis). The same thing might be said for the sciences, with regard to the Ph.D., given that recent trends indicate we might have a physician shortage in the next decade. Research is important--and quality, unbiased research (funded from sources that do not put pressure on the PI's) should not be downplayed--but whether we should continue to push the Ph.D. (especially if graduates are coming into our country for education and then immediately returning to their home countries) is something to think about.

I could go on, but that's my educational rant for 2009.

Posted by: Cindy McCant on September 2, 2009 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

This is an atrocity of a ranking system. South Carolina State's position is demeaning to the whole process of your system. It has 71% of students receiving Pell Grants, which is great because they are receiving funding. However, you look 1 column over and see that they rank #1 in expected graduation rate compared to actual graduation rate, at +22%. However, they set the bar at 23% expected / 45% actual. Not hard to exceed expectations when you set your sights so incredibly low. Stanford, meanwhile, meets its 95% expected/actual graduation rate and comes in at 142nd in that ranking. It's a farce of a ranking system. SC State isn't even in the top 125 of any other rank other than students receiving work study (#62). I refuse to believe a school that doesn't receive any significant awards from its faculty and does so little research is providing a level of "higher education," especially when the graduation rate is unbelievably low.

Posted by: Steve S on September 2, 2009 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

Did someone move Ithaca College to Russia?

I hate it when they move things to russia.

Posted by: KilgoreTrout XL on September 2, 2009 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

These rankings are absurd. As a Nittany Lion, it's flattering to see Penn State in the top ten, but let's get real. I dare you to stay awake through a lecture in The Forum or the 'Matterhorn' with 300+ close friends. I could have died there and no one would have noticed until the stench started seeping from beneath the door. My advisor didn't know who I was after 3 years and didn't want to know -- he was too involved in his research.

When our daughter was looking at schools, she wanted to visit PSU so I took her. It's a beautiful campus, but after listening to several student panels, her impression was 'these kids seem to think the world ends at the PA border. I don't think I want to graduate and get a job in Wilkes-Barre.'

Elitist? Not at all. State schools serve their states and PSU does an outstanding job with that. She simply saw a larger world, and though she was accepted at PSU, she ended up enrolling in one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country, where she's required to double-major and her largest class has had 80 kids. For her, it's the right place even if the tuition is killing me.

But there are other schools not on the WM list that also do a great job of educating kids. For the past 15 years I've worked with a small college in Ohio (enrollment 1,600), where they measure student success by what they call relative movement. By and large, their market is Appalachian kids who come in as rough as can be, and leave to attend some of the best graduate programs in the country.

The ultimate measure of a school is the student experience -- professors who give a damn and peers who are capable of and interested in learning.

Posted by: beep52 on September 2, 2009 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK
[W]e rank schools based on what they are doing for the country -- by improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service.
...number-one-ranked Berkley (sic)...

How do you justify the above when you consider this?

John Yoo is a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall), where he has taught since 1993.

If we're talking about positive effects on the country, seems like Berkeley should have been disqualified quickly.

Posted by: TG Chicago on September 2, 2009 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

First: please stop denigrating other ranking systems -"crude and easily manipulated measures of money and prestige." We readers can decide for ourselves the integrity of a ranking system.
Second: stop boasting in truisms. "unique methodology"; "proud to announce".... Each method of ranking is, by definition, unique. And what magazine would NOT be proud to announce its very own method?
And, thirdly but most important: "what they are doing for the country -- by improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service." Are the three methods after the dash the only way to "do" for the country? For example, all the computer geniuses - Gates, Jobs, Dell, Hewlitt, Packard, etc. - made billions for themselves - and tens of billions for hundreds of others. This country has been most improved by innovators - Edison, Ford, Watson - looking to make a profit. And from them, we have electricity, cars, and IBM.
From where, do you think, the $$ for the public sector comes from?

Posted by: oldnassau on September 2, 2009 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

Where's Mills College, a Women's liberal arts colleges that one would expect to score well?

Posted by: David Brower on September 2, 2009 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

Why is a positive gap between expected and actual graduation rates a good thing? Couldn't a large discrepancy be indicative of a degree mill rather than a strong program? I'd suspect that a school with a 22% expected graduation rate but a 45% actual graduation rate is more likely to be too lenient with grading and passing than to be bringing so many of their students up to a higher level. Especially when you consider how low that school (SCSU) ranks on the rest of your criteria. But, rather than treat this as a red flag, you're considering it praiseworthy.

Posted by: Second Derivative on September 2, 2009 at 11:49 PM | PERMALINK

My alma mater does well in these rankings but they are a crock. Not only are the criteria questionable, but several do not measure what they purport to measure. The two social mobility measures are laughable, particularly when applied to small liberal arts schools. And % of federal work-study fund spent on service? What if a school doesn't get (or take) any federal work-study funds? What about a private school's % of budget applied to community outreach and civic engagement?

Posted by: reidmc on September 3, 2009 at 12:02 AM | PERMALINK

Anyone who has attended a UC as an undergrad, as I have (UC Berkeley), and was honest with himself, would find this ranking highly suspect. The class sizes were huge throughout my entire undergrad education (that is, when I didn't get shut out of the class), the support structure for students was minimal, at best, and good luck trying to get into office hours. UCB felt like a student factory rather than a university. It was bursting at the seams, and unfortunately with the budget cuts it's only getting worse.

Posted by: LipReader on September 3, 2009 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

While I do believe that people can choose to agree or disagree with the ranking methodology used here, it's our job (for those who are of the same mind as me, and there seem to be quite a few of us) to point out the very serious flaws in these rankings. Schools put a lot of store in lists like these, and the last thing I'd like to see is colleges allowing the ROTC on campus and blindly pushing the PhD just to inflate their ranking.

Posted by: rowingtech on September 3, 2009 at 2:39 AM | PERMALINK

I do love how much effort is devoted to devising ways of ensuring that Harvard, Princeton and Yale do not get rated #1. It has become a fixation. All this angst about the Ivies also ignores the fact that many of us went to Harvard because it offered us fantastic financial aid and an outstanding education. I paid ZERO to go to Harvard and shall forever be thankful. Not all Ivy League grants are pampered!

Posted by: David on September 3, 2009 at 4:18 AM | PERMALINK

To the person who commented that you could go to a private university and end up owing a fortune, or a public university and leave with a $100,000 trust fund: you've got it backwards. If you go to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Williams, Brown etc you can often leave with zero student loan debt. For families making under $75K, these universities are virtually free. The same cannot be said about state universities.

As for going to "state" universities in Europe, as an American you will find up paying a fortune as an "overseas" student.

Posted by: David` on September 3, 2009 at 4:23 AM | PERMALINK

David, your statement is shortsighted. Most top private universities will cover you, but still require you to accept a minimum of about $5,000 in loans per year. Moreover, after a 4-year period, they pretty much cut you off and then you have to pay a huge portion of your education through loans. Now, if we are considering students within marginalized populations, they likely have to work and attend to other non-academic responsibilities while going to college, which means they will likely require an additional year to graduate. In the end, they pay more. We have to consider all variables before making sweeping claims.

In my opinion, if a university can produce innovative, passionate, and talented students who make a difference in the world, that's a pretty good indicator of a top university. Guess where they learned those skills and from who? A great university who taught them how to think and act independently without the hand-holding seen in many top private universities that allow you to drop a course after taking the final. In a university like Berkeley, the competition is intense and massive. People learn quickly how to think and respond and stay ahead of the game. These are competitive leadership skills you will need in the real world, and that is why universities, like Berkeley, produce the movers and the shakers of the world.

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Posted by: Billy on February 19, 2010 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

I'd suspect that a school with a 22% expected graduation rate but a 45% actual graduation rate is more likely to be too lenient with grading and passing than to be bringing so many of their students up to a higher level.

Posted by: Book Publishers on August 17, 2010 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

Elitist? Not at all. State schools serve their states and PSU does an outstanding job with that. She simply saw a larger world, and though she was accepted at PSU, she ended up enrolling in one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country, where she's required to double-major and her book publishers largest class has had 80 kids. For her, it's the right place even if the tuition is killing me.

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