Big Day in the College Rankings Biz

At WaMo we feel pretty good about our contributions to the art and science of evaluating U.S. colleges and universities on the basis of metrics that are more meaningful than wealth, exclusivity and reputation. But we got into this business because of the shortcomings of established rating systems, particularly the most influential, from US News & World Report. So we greet that publication’s latest set of rankings with respect for its power but not its glory. As the revolutionary baseball writer Bill James once said of his “traditonalist” rivals, “If I want to play Galileo somebody’s got to play the Pope.” That’s sort of how we feel about the US News rankings, which are consistent in the reinforcement they offer to expensive and selective schools, whether or not they collectively do a particularly good job of educating Americans or justifying the many subsidies they receive.

If we’re especially critical of the US News system, it’s not so much because we disagree with the criteria they use, though we do: it’s the enormous influence the rankings play, not only in life-changing decisions made by students and parents, but in the behavior of colleges themselves. Recent evidence of schools “reverse-engineering” the US News rankings in order to boost their standing ought to worry anyone who cares about higher education. So it will be a good week for comparing not just our rankings with theirs, but welcoming new perspectives on college quality from various directions, particularly in anticipation of the federal government’s future offerings.

In that spirit, we’d note that the New York Times‘ at its Upshot sub-site has now released a ranking of “economically diverse top colleges.” It’s pretty similar in intent to our own “Affordable Elites” rankings, though the Times’ very high cutoff for four-year graduation rates means that they mainly focus on private colleges, as noted by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed:

The rankings are derived from a formula based on the proportion of undergraduates who receive Pell Grants and the net price (what students actually pay as opposed to sticker price) paid by those with family incomes of $30,000 to $48,000. But the Times applied this formula only to institutions with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent. That’s a bar that only about 100 colleges meet, and all but three of them are private institutions. (The full Times methodology may be found here.)

So while the leading three (Vassar College, Grinnell College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) are all institutions that don’t normally top the likes of Harvard University (ranked sixth), they are also not institutions that serve as many low-income students as many public institutions that don’t meet the 75 percent standard.

By contrast, WaMo’s “Affordable Elites” rankings feature seven public institutions in the top twenty. But we welcome the Times‘ approach–and the immediate influence it is likely to have–as a beneficial contribution to the genre. And we greet another year of US News rankings as, well, an impressive exercise in the preservation of the status quo ante.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.