The Tyranny of Prestige

Fhis month we present our third annual Washington Monthly College Guide. As in previous years, our aim is to offer an alternative to the U.S. News & World Report and similar college guides. Those guides focus on what colleges can do for you. We focus on what colleges are doing for the country.

The rankings can be found here, and as youll see, the results diverge sharply from the rankings most of us are used to seeing. Princeton, number one on the U.S. News list, comes in seventy-eighth on ours. Texas A&M, rated sixtieth by U.S. News, is number one on our list.

Surely, you might ask, we dont really think that Texas A&M is better than Princeton? Well, yes, in a way. Remember, we arent trying, as U.S. News does, to rate how selective or academically prestigious a given school is, but rather how much it contributes to the common good. The whole point is to recognize the broader role colleges and universities play in our national life and to reward those institutions that best fulfill that role. After all, almost every major challenge America now facesfrom stagnant wages to the lack of fluent Arab speakers in the federal governmentcould be met in part by better harnessing the power of our colleges and universities.

So instead of measuring, say, the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen, or the percentage of alumni who donate money, we rank colleges based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and service. In other words, is the school recruiting and graduating low-income students? Is it producing PhDs and cutting-edge research? And is it encouraging in its students an ethic of service? By this yardstick, Texas A&M really does outperform every other university in America (a nose ahead of UCLA and UC Berkeley).

Ah, you might say, isnt academic excellence also an importantarguably the most importantgauge of a schools contribution to the country? Sure it is. And if we could get reliable data about how much learning is going on in American colleges, wed eagerly include it in our rankings. But we cant: the sound data that does exist, compiled by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), is kept under wraps by colleges and universities. U.S. News cant get the data either, which is why its editors must resort to statistical alchemy.

And even if we were able to include trustworthy data on academic quality in our rankings, the results would likely still scramble the traditional hierarchy of academic prestige we all carry around in our heads. As we explained last year (see “Is Our Students Learning?, September 2006), experts who have seen the NSSE data report that many elite schools dont do all that well on these academic measures either. Prestige simply isnt synonymous with good teaching. Indeed, as Kevin Carey shows elsewhere in this issuesee Americas Best Community Colleges and Built to Teachsome unknown community colleges offer more challenging educations than do certain well-regarded four-year universities.

In addition to reliable numbers on academic performance, there are other kinds of data wed love to get our hands on. For instance, to fully measure a schools commitment to service, wed ideally like to know how many of its graduates become teachers, social workers, or public servants employed by the government. The Education Department could generate these numbers fairly easily by matching state employment records against individual graduation data from colleges and universities. Unfortunately, colleges wont disclose that information. And their lobbyists in Washington, citing dubious privacy concerns, have blocked all efforts to mandate such disclosure (see Inside the Higher Ed Lobby).

Part of the reason that schools fight disclosure is that they dont want Washington challenging their autonomy. Part of it is also the fear that if the public had solid information about the quality of the education offered inside the classroom, colleges and universities would be under all sorts of market pressure to change the way they do business. (And indeed they would bethats why we favor it.)

Ultimately, though, keeping a lid on this information isnt in the public interest, nor is it in the long-term interest of most colleges and universities. It merely protects a few dozen pricey schools that, for reasons more of legacy than of merit, are able to monopolize the upper ranks of prestige while robbing many lesser schools of a glory that is rightly theirs.

In any Washington interest group, policy is usually set by a handful of powerful members. Higher education is no exception. But occasionally, the majority revolts. That may happen, sooner or later, in the higher ed world. We hope that the Washington Monthly College Rankings help spark that revolution.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.