The U.S. News and World Report College Guide comes in for some much-needed competition with the Washington Monthly’s second Annual College Guide in their September issue. Their guide takes a novel approach, considering the imagined taxpayer as the imagined reader, and gauging how well colleges fare in enrolling poorer students, fostering research, and promoting an “ethic of service to country” — all laudable items, for sure. These guidelines produce a considerably different set of rankings than US News. On the Washington Monthly list we see Penn State, Texas A&M, South Caroline State University, and UC-Davis in the top 10. Horrors, indeed! The list, entertainingly, needles the New School’s pretensions of bringing “actual, positive change to the world” – they rank it at 228. The Washington Monthly’s questions about whether Universities “deserve” federal research grants on the basis of largely unrelated questions about, say, low-income enrollment seem a little unreasonable (Quick! “Who wants to restrict NIH grants on the basis of percentages of students at said institutions receiving Pell grants?” “No hands?”).
Typical Washington Monthly preferences emerge in bits like “we hope that citizens and elected officials will look to this guide when making decisions on how to subsidize and regulate higher education” [italics mine]. That aside, at a point when governmental support underpins such a large fraction of US higher education, as George Leef’s essay indicates, practical questions about what this is purchasing seem highly reasonable. In this regard, questions about how colleges fare in attracting bright poorer students, conducting research, and encouraging community service seem quite reasonable. And any list that includes ROTC rank as a prominent ranking factor deserves some praise. Whatever the actual factors set forth, the list makes a fundamentally important point about colleges and the US News list.
Our periodic grousing about other college guides isn’t about the influence they have on prospective students (although it’s strong). It’s about the influence they have on colleges themselves. In order to improve their rank in the U.S. News guide, schools often lose sight of the greater good and focus on throwing a lot of money at the wrong things in the hope of gaming the system.
Colleges undeniably conduct odd acrobatics to suit US News’ “oddball heuristics”, which don’t really serve anyone well. Pragmatically, however, it’s a tall order that colleges would take note of such methodologies as the Washington Monthly list uses. And I can’t see too many progressive Montgomery and Westchester County parents steering their sons and daughters to Texas A&M (#5) instead of a ’a school in Massachusetts” (#28) on the basis of their Washington Monthly subscriptions.