Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Fall and College Rankings

This is the time of the year when college rankings begin to appear. You can find a raft of them and they seemingly tell you different stories. For example, the US News Rankings- which are among the oldest - seem to confirm the usual suspects. But the Washington Monthly Rankings use a completely different set of rankings and come up with some surprisingly different results.

US News rates, in good measure, by reputation. It surveys academics and asks the question to them - they come up with some predicatable answers. In recent years they have also added a series of other indicators to look at things like who sends the most students abroad or who has the highest percentage of transfer students. So if you want your student to study abroad or join a fraternity (and that is the greatest criteria for going to college) you can find a ranking.

Washington Monthly looks at things like social mobility (is the university doing something that seemingly adds value to the students who enter?) - under the presumed assumption that a university which only offers admission to silver spoon kids and then has a bunch of wildly successful graduates has not done much. They also look at indicators like social service components. They make a pretty bold statement at the start of their guide which suggests the broader public responsibility of colleges and universities - they should contribute to our national well being. The magazine's opening article in its guide is one with which I would argue with on some of their basic points. But their approach is no less valid than any of the other college guides.

The point here comes back to an issue raised by some in Congress during the reauthorization of the higher education act. Senior Members of Congress and people like the leader of the Spellings Commission comment that we need more information about colleges. They argue that parents and students do not have enough information with which to make intelligent choices. In reality, the amount of information about colleges and universities is diverse and difuse. A person, with a modicum of interest, can find a bevy of information which explains how colleges work in a number of ways. Want to find the colleges with the highest percentage of merit (non-need based) aid? US News. Want to find a college with a high commitment to social service? Washington Monthly. Want to look at another more obscure indicator? The point is that as the Economist pointed out in their survey of higher education last fall - American universities are the strongest in the world because of the diversity of their offerings, and governance and financing schemes. Those politicians who want to make this rich market entirely uniform are missing the point.

The people who created No Child Left Behind (the Elementary and Secondary monstrosity created to make those educational systems more uniform) operated under the absurd belief that a single set of national standards would improve performance. The law will not be successful, except in the perpetuation of mediocrity. A more creative legislative process would have built on the strength of diversity in the country. It would have recognized that uniformity does not create excellence. But small minds have small thoughts. Now the same people are trying to impose the same kinds of uniform standards on higher education. As the recently released guides suggest - there is both a lot to be proud of in American higher education and a lot to strive for - but neither the pride nor the quest will be improved by uniformity.

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