Held to a Higher Standard

Sharing the coveted #1 slot on the U.S. News and World Report college rankings with Harvard this time around, Princeton University has now been at the top of the list for six years running.

While students, parents, and universities alike recognize the shortcomings of the rankings (perhaps especially those of U.S. News's "America's Best Colleges"), the College Guide couldn't leave the shelves any faster, selling hundreds of thousands of copies on top of the millions of subscription copies already sold.

It is a paradox that repeats itself year after year -- students and university officials discredit the rankings and dismiss the weight they have in assessing a college, yet everyone obsesses over the results anyway.

The reaction Princeton University officials had to their #1 placement illustrates this nicely: "While formulaic rankings can never provide an accurate reflection of whether a university may be the best choice for a student," the spokesperson said, "it is gratifying that Princeton continues to be recognized for the quality of the undergraduate experience we offer."

The US News and World Report "America's Best Colleges" issue was not the only college ranking published this week, however, so before the champagne starts flowing at the households that are sending their kids off to the newly (or repeatedly) crowned top ten schools, tuition-payers nationwide need to take a look at the inaugural Washington Monthly College Guide, which ranks our nation's institutions of higher learning by a different standard.

"Other guides ask what colleges can do for you. We ask what are colleges doing for the country," the guide declares, framing at the outset its novel and important way of ranking universities - as institutions of service. After all, as the guide reasons, "these are the institutions … that produce most of the country's cutting-edge scientific research and are therefore indirectly responsible for much of our national wealth and prosperity. They are the surest route for hardworking poor kids to achieve a better life in a changing economy. And they shape, in profound and subtle ways, students' ideas about American society and their place in it."

So The Washington Monthly graded our national universities and liberal arts colleges as institutions for research, as institutions for social mobility, and as institutions of national service. The rankings were based on Pell Grant distribution (and the corresponding graduation rate) and work study money for the social mobility criterion, research grant money for the research criterion, and ROTC, Peace Corps, and community service participation for the national service criterion.

With these numbers in place, we arrive at very different results than the typical yearly college rankings, with some particularly notable results. For instance: 6-peat Princeton found itself at #44, with unlikely Iowa State (#34) and South Carolina State (#40) above it. Pennsylvania State University (#6) and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (#13) beat out both Harvard (#16) and Yale (#15). Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California-Los Angeles, and University of California-Berkeley secured the top three rungs.

Granted, certain measures of the three criteria are missing, whether deliberately (Teach for America participation, for instance, is not included because the program specifically targets elite schools, making it difficult to compare across schools), unfortunately (AmeriCorps participation, for example, is not available on a nationwide scale, and could not be factored in), or accidentally (this being, after all, the inaugural issue of the rankings, campus activism or free tuition programs for low-income students are not considered). The Washington Monthly is the first to admit that it would like to expand its criteria and measures in future years.

Nonetheless, people should take these rankings to heart, says Danny Franklin, consulting editor for The Washington Monthly. "I can't say 1 is better than 3, and 3 is better than 5, but we fully stand behind the ranking. I have no doubt in my mind that South Carolina State [65 percent of whose student body receives Pell Grants] does more good for the country than Princeton [8 percent of students]. ... They're taking kids who could not have gone to school otherwise and giving them the chance to move themselves from poverty into economic stability." Indeed, the methodology, indicators, and statistical tools having been developed after consultation with an economist who formerly worked for, as it happens, the US News and World Report college rankings, The Washington Monthly wants its rankings to be taken seriously.

But behind these rankings is a more fundamental purpose - not to eliminate the obsession with rankings, the culture of lists, but to reshape it. People are inherently fascinated with rankings, and while we understand their limitations, we consult them anyway. "It confers a degree of prestige on the institution," explains Franklin, "and prestige matters a great deal. Talent follows prestige. Money follows prestige." Of course, this project will become truly meaningful when it convinces young people that a college of service is just as prestigious as a well-endowed one and that a career of service is as prestigious as a more traditionally lucrative one.

But The Washington Monthly wants to meet that challenge and lead the way in changing how we assign prestige to universities - this inaugural ranking is just the beginning. "We want every school in the country to know their ranking and why they are ranked where they are. I think that they should compete. I think they should take pride in their numbers when they do well, and I think that they should be ashamed when they do badly," says Franklin.

Quite a difference from the attitude held by U.S. News and World Report: "We don't like the notion that some colleges are acting in response to the rankings," said managing editor Brian Kelly. "We think that's a shame."

The Washington Monthly is out to transform the very nature of college - from merely isolated institutions of learning to interactive institutions of service. We thank them and will keep a hopeful eye out for next year's rankings.

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