Colleges: Four Kinds of Bad

As noted in an earlier post on Ferrum College in Virginia, Washington Monthly‘s College Rankings this year have entered the perilous but essential territory of highlighting the worst as well as “the best” schools.

But as Ben Miller of the New America Foundation notes in his write-up of the rankings, there are different kinds of “bad:”

Worst colleges lists are uncommon in part because they represent a more difficult analytic challenge. The indicators that put a college on the top lists tend to be highly correlated at the top end. A school that takes one out of every ten applicants and sits on a billion-dollar endowment is very likely to have low class sizes, high SAT scores, and high graduation rates. The rich tend to be rich all around.

It’s not so simple on the other end. Some nonselective colleges produce admirable graduation rates at an affordable price to students. Others are lucky to see one-fifth of starting students on through to graduation. Some charge sky-high prices and graduate students with large amounts of debt while others may be quite cheap.

So WaMo has four separate “worst 20” lists emphasizing different factors. The most general, which equally weighs net price, student debt, debt default rates, and graduation rates, is dominated by private for-profit colleges (18 of the 20). A second, placing a greater emphasis on graduation rates, also features a lot of private for-profits, but also four private non-profit historically black institutions (HBCUs). A third which factors in the percentage of students borrowing and also considers part-time students includes a lot more HBCUs (twelve: ten private non-profit, two public). And a fourth that adjusts for student diversity includes no HBCUs but centers on small and expensive private non-profit schools outside the Deep South.

The point here isn’t to focus on determining the worst-of-the-worst, but instead to draw attention to the factors that make certain types of college risky for students. As Miller concludes:

The high quality of America’s best colleges creates a strong public belief that all U.S. institutions of higher education must be of similar quality. Top colleges lists reinforce this assumption, while the obsession over admissions sucks up all the air in public debates over college quality. This is a boon for those schools that are decidedly not world-class and that struggle with debt, cost, and completion. They fly under the radar with little attention and unearned positive reputations. And only the students who have the misfortune to enroll at one of these places find out the truth. If we want to improve national attainment and deal with college cost, that cannot continue. It’s time to get these colleges some attention by putting them at the top of the list.

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.