When College Rankings Get Personal

After fifteen years of publishing the Washington Monthly College Guide, I’ve finally become a customer.

By the time you get around to reading this, my son Adam and I will be driving his old SUV, stuffed, Clampett-like, with clothes and cooking utensils, from Washington, D.C., to Washington State to drop him off for his first year at Evergreen State College. When Adam announced that he wanted to go there, I was wary. All I knew about Evergreen was that it was nearly 3,000 miles away and the type of ultra-left campus that keeps Fox News producers employed. (In 2017, protests against a professor who questioned the tactics of a student racial justice campaign grew so intense that graduation had to be held off campus.) But then Adam pointed something else out to me: my own magazine lists Evergreen as the number one master’s university in the country.

So, after fifteen years of publishing an alternative set of college rankings, I have become a customer. This is one reason why we launched the rankings in the first place: to provide the kind of useful information that students and their parents weren’t getting from U.S. News & World Report. 

But we also had a larger ambition: to change the way policymakers think about what constitutes quality in higher education. For decades, a school was considered “good” if it was exclusive, wealthy, and prestigious—like a country club, but with lectures instead of golf. That definition, which the U.S. News rankings validate and accentuate, warps the entire higher education sector. It tempts ambitious presidents of non-elite colleges to tighten admissions standards, leaving other institutions to educate the 90-plus percent of students who can’t get into selective schools but need a college credential to have a shot at a middle-class income. It encourages state lawmakers to pass higher education budgets that result in per-pupil spending at public research universities, which tend to cater to affluent white students, that is more than twice as high as community colleges, which disproportionately enroll low-income and minority students. And it ultimately leads to the kind of venality we’re seeing in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, where rich parents, panicked at the prospect of having to put a State U sticker on the back of their Teslas, bribed their kids’ ways into elite schools. 

We designed the Washington Monthly’s college rankings to have the opposite effect, with metrics that redefine what a “good” college is. To score well in our rankings, a school needs to help lots of non-wealthy students earn marketable degrees at reasonable prices, produce plenty of scholarship and scholars, and encourage its students to become generous and active citizens. If every college did that, America would be a more equitable, prosperous, and democratic country. 

The good news is that our new definition of quality is gaining traction. More and more colleges are adopting innovative approaches to help students of modest means succeed (see Eric Cortellessa, “Teaching the Ivory Tower New Tricks”) and to inspire all of their students to vote (see Daniel Block, “The Voting Wars Come to Campus” and “America’s Best Colleges for Student Voting 2019”). Both political parties are pushing policies aimed at making post-secondary education (vocational as well as traditional two- and four-year programs) more affordable, and in this issue we offer a few more ideas—like turning work study into a pathway for post-college employment (see Grace Gedye, “Putting Work Study to Work”) and letting community colleges award bachelor’s degrees (see Mary Alice McCarthy and Debra Bragg, “Escaping the Transfer Trap”). Even U.S. News is (slowly) moving in the right direction: last year it added a “social mobility” component to its otherwise quack rankings system.

The bad news is that the old definition of quality in higher education still has a profound grip on our collective consciousness. That explains the success of the latest higher ed hustle, one Anne Kim exposes in this issue (“The Pre-College Racket”): elite schools recruiting high school students to sign up for insanely expensive pre-college summer programs by implying—or at least doing little to discourage the belief—that doing so will give them a leg up on the admissions process. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.) 

The college my son has chosen is not one of those avaricious elite institutions—which he thinks are overrated and ridiculous. Evergreen is a funky public liberal arts school that suits him morally and academically (multidisciplinary classes, focus on social justice, strong environmental science program), is diverse racially and economically, helps its students earn degrees that lead to decent-paying jobs, and charges tuition that won’t break Dad’s bank account. I am proud of, and grateful to, Adam for choosing a college that precisely fits this magazine’s definition of “good.” 

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.