Research, Service, and Social Mobility: “A Different Kind of College Ranking”

Today is the day that the annual U.S. News rankings of America’s best colleges are published. (Here’s the summary — note that the rankings I’ll discuss below are from last year’s report.) I already reposted my September 2011 take on the U.S. News survey, assuming that my response probably wouldn’t change much from 2011 to 2012 — those rankings are still deeply flawed, though not unuseful. In that post I also looked at the Forbes ranking system, which avoids U.S. News’ controversial reliance on “reputation” in order to consider other factors (including student achievement). And last month I visited the Newsweek/Daily Beast rankings, which focus primarily on student perspectives.

Today I want to examine the college rating system used by Washington Monthly magazine, touted by its editors as “A different kind of college ranking.” What sets it apart? From the editors’ intro:

Washington Monthly College Guide, 2012Americans have long looked to higher education as a source of social mobility and public good. Increasingly, it is becoming something much different, and much worse: a narrowing aperture of opportunity through which only the children of the wealthy emerge unscathed.

But you wouldn’t know it by reading the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings. That well-known list actually rewards colleges for spending more money, raising prices, and shutting out all but the most privileged students. While the college cost crisis has many causes, including stingy state legislatures and institutions that have resisted becoming more cost-effective, the relentless chase for status is undeniably driving prices up. There’s nothing wrong with rankings per se—colleges need outside scrutiny and students need information to make choices in a complicated market. But rankings that push individual colleges to heedlessly raise prices help precipitate a collective crisis that threatens to undermine institutions that are vital to the nation’s future prosperity and civic life.

That’s why, since 2005, the Washington Monthly has published rankings that pose a different question: What are colleges doing for the country?

I’ll confess to having been unaware of this set of rankings until now, but the description certainly sounds promising. And I mostly liked how the editors set about answering that question of what colleges do for the United States. They look at three criteria (which receive equal weight in the calculations):

  • Social Mobility: “…gives colleges credit for enrolling many low-income students and helping them earn degrees” — a factor that was modified this year to take cost into account (i.e., colleges that are inexpensive and have high graduation rates for lower-income students do well). This is the most complicated methodology; I’ll just refer you to that section of the rankings if you’re interested.
  • Research Production: including research spending by the institution, doctorates awarded (there are different categories of institutions, so liberal arts colleges and master’s level universities aren’t competing against national research universities), how many graduates go on to earn PhD’s themselves, and awards received by faculty (including membership in national academies for their fields).
  • Commitment to Service: “The students in our best colleges are taught by example and design to look beyond themselves and give back.” Measured by participation in ROTC programs and the Peace Corps, plus a variety of factors related to student and faculty engagement in the community.
ROTC cadets at U. Delaware
Army ROTC cadets at the University of Delaware – Creative Commons (Lowell Silverman)

Unlike the U.S. News system, it doesn’t depend on a school’s “reputation” among other university presidents, or judge the quality of education by looking at the entrance exam scores of students who’ve never taken a class in the college. Unlike Forbes, it doesn’t privilege schools that place graduates on corporate boards and in the pages of Who‘s Who. Like Newsweek, it pays more attention to affordability, but focuses on lower-income students and what the school does to help them graduate.

I’m less of a fan of giving research equal weight. While some of the factors (e.g., faculty awards) are adjusted according to the size of the faculty, research spending is not. The editors admit that this benefits larger schools, but are unapologetic: “It is the huge numbers of scientists, engineers, and PhDs that larger universities produce, combined with their enormous amounts of research spending, that will help keep America competitive in an increasingly global economy.” Perhaps so in the National University category, but I see this as a vastly less important goal for most of the nation’s thousands of colleges and universities. For colleges and universities oriented around the liberal arts, in particular, there’s little in this system that measures schools’ abilities to cultivate knowledge, communication and critical thinking skills, open-mindedness, etc. Even the service criteria, while creative, are porous filters for catching excellence: a college could churn out few Peace Corps volunteers or junior army officers, or spend its work-study funds primarily on campus, and yet still prepare graduates profoundly committed to serving others in professions that don’t require a PhD (or earn a spot in Who’s Who). I think here of my own school’s  programs in nursing, education, and social work, plus its traditional role of preparing ministers and missionaries (plus a growing number of workers in the non-profit sector), none of which is captured by Washington Monthly‘s model.

Overall, I do think it’s an improvement in several respects on the hoary old U.S. News model. And, not surprisingly, the results are quite different from those produced by U.S. News. Among national universities, the top ten are for each survey are: (with their rank in the other system in parentheses)

Washington Monthly U.S. News (2012)
1. U. California, San Diego (37) 1t. Harvard (11)
2. Texas A&M (58) 1t. Princeton (20)
3. Stanford (5t) 3. Yale (41)
4. U. North Carolina, Chapel Hill (30) 4. Columbia (36)
5. U. California, Berkeley (21) 5t. Cal Tech (49)
6. U. California, Los Angeles (24) 5t. MIT (15)
7. Case Western Reserve (37) 5t. Stanford (3)
8. U. Washington (46) 5t. U. Chicago (29)
9. U. California, Riverside (101) 5t. U. Pennsylvania (27)
10. Georgia Tech (36) 10. Duke (26)
The University of California at San Diego, with Geisel Library on the left – Wikimedia

What accounts for the differences? UCSD and Stanford both do exceptionally well in the research component, then the former gets a boost from having a high degree of community service by students. Texas A&M is the #1 school in terms of ROTC participation, ranks even more highly than UCSD in federal work-study funds spent on service, and is in the top 25 on the social mobility index.

The private universities that perennially top the U.S. News list excel in research, and outdo most of the Washington Monthly top ten in sending their undergraduates on for further study. But they do quite a bit worse in community service, and not one so much as cracks the top 100 on social mobility (the main strength for Washington, #6 among all universities of this type). Other U.S. News stalwarts are punished for being overpriced: e.g., New York University, “which has floated to national prominence on a sea of student debt” and Northeastern University (“Universities that purchase a facade of greatness are recognized by U.S. News , but not by us.” Zing.) Brown, Georgetown, Northwestern… Well out of the top 50, let alone the top 10 or top 25.

Two California schools illustrate the different approaches, in particular the weight given “Commitment to service” by Washington Monthly: Cal Tech (despite ranking #1 in both sending students to doctoral programs and employing members of national academies) is in the bottom 50% in almost all service categories, while Cal-Riverside (only 8th best among the U. California schools in the U.S. News rankings) is #1 in community service hours and #2 in federal work-study funds being spent on service. (As the editors themselves acknowledge, having four campuses in this famous system in the top 10 seems unsustainable given recent trends in California: “Tragically, the system has been rocked by budget cuts and price increases in recent years. We hope this trend is reversed before the UC campuses fade from prominence.”)

Then here’s the same breakdown for Liberal Arts Colleges. See if you can guess which list is which:

1. Bryn Mawr (25) 1. Williams (7)
2. Swarthmore (3) 2. Amherst (10)
3. Berea (75) 3. Swarthmore (2)
4. Carleton (8) 4t. Middlebury (75)
5. Harvey Mudd (12) 4t. Pomona (26)
6. New College of Florida (87) 6t. Bowdoin (66)
7. Williams (1) 6t. Wellesley (9)
8. Macalester (24) 8. Carleton (4)
9. Wellesley (6t) 9. Haverford (18)
10. Amherst (2) 10. Claremont McKenna (54)

Here again, Washington Monthly is on the left. It ranked Bryn Mawr first thanks in large part to the service category: 66% of its work-study funds go to service (#1 on the list), whereas that number is 18% for U.S. News-leading Williams. That said, there’s not quite as stark a difference in this category of school, as half the top ten overlaps, and all but two of the WM favorites are in the USN top 25. As for the five that don’t coincide so neatly:

  • Logo for Berea CollegeBerea College: despite middling research scores and reputation (it’s not even in the top 100 of U.S. News survey of high school guidance counselors), it does better than any other liberal arts college at graduating low-income students at a pace far exceeding what might be predicted. And it has a lot of low-income students: 90% of the Berea student body receives Pell grants. Add in the fact that Berea charges no tuition, and it exemplifies WM‘s ideal of the college as an (affordable) engine of social mobility.
  • New College (FL): with a net cost just under $10,000, a good track record with lower-income students, an even better one with sending graduates to graduate school, and a propensity for tying work-study to service, New College is close to the platonic ideal of a Washington Monthly liberal arts college.
  • Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Claremont McKenna: these highly priced East/West Coast darlings of U.S. News fare poorly on both the social mobility and service scores for Washington Monthly. Claremont actually is in the top 50% for this category of college in social mobility, but its below-average (according to this methodology) commitment to community service knocks it far below neighboring Harvey Mudd.

2 thoughts on “Research, Service, and Social Mobility: “A Different Kind of College Ranking”

  1. Given that my employer dropped from #19 (or #20, I inadvertently wrote both on my post last year) among Regional Universities (Midwest) to #24 in this year’s U.S. News rankings… Let me make clear that I wrote this post before the new rankings were released; any criticism of U.S. News’ system is unaffected by any movement in Bethel’s ranking. And we’ll see that Bethel doesn’t do any better in the Washington Monthly system…

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