Washington Monthly’s college rankings echo pieces of the Obama higher education plan

August 26, 2013

President Obama said last week he wants to rate colleges on value and performance. The Washington Monthly, an independent magazine for policy wonks, released annual rankings Monday that attempt to do just that.

The Monthly, which for years has argued that conventional measures of college prestige are far less important than what colleges do for the country, is pleased that the president appears to be singing from its song sheet.

“It doesn’t happen every day that an administration does exactly what you want,” Paul Glastris, the Monthly’s editor in chief, said.

Atop the Monthly’s list of national universities, ranked on how they promote upward social mobility, research and public service, are the universities of California at San Diego and Riverside, respectively. The magazine’s top-ranked liberal arts colleges are Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania and Carleton in Minnesota.

The schools the Monthly believes offer the “best bang for buck” are the private Amherst College in Massachusetts, which has generous financial aid and a high share of enrollment of students in financial need, and the City University of New York’s Queens College, a public institution.

Among schools in Virginia, Maryland and the District on the Monthly’s list of the top 100 national universities, Johns Hopkins University ranks 34th, the College of William and Mary 36th, Virginia Tech 40th, the University of Maryland at College Park 50th, the University of Virginia 51st, Howard University 93rd and George Washington University 94th. On the liberal arts college top 100 were Emory and Henry College (45th) and Washington & Lee University (46th), both in Virginia; and St. John’s College (53rd) and McDaniel College (92nd), both in Maryland.

Most college rankings are inherently subjective, based on formulas that the rankers create.

The Monthly chooses to stress factors such as the share of students receiving need-based Pell grants, predicted versus actual graduation rates, research expenditures and Peace Corps and ROTC participation, among others. Public universities tend to do well on its lists.

The Monthly’s “best bang for the buck” rankings also take into account factors such as net price for students whose families earn $75,000 a year or less, which is a measure of price after scholarships and grants are subtracted from the advertised rate of tuition.

The much-better-known U.S. News & World Report rankings, to be released on Sept. 10, are dominated by private institutions. Critics say the U.S. News lists reward prestige, institutional wealth and the caliber of students that enter a school, rather than what a school does for the students. U.S. News editors say their metrics take into account a broad range of data on schools.

Exactly how a federal rating system would work remains unknown. Obama said last week that he wants the government to start rating schools by fall 2015. He also wants federal aid to be tied to high-performing schools by 2018, which would require congressional approval.

Federal officials say they do not envision numerical rankings. There will be no school that the government ranks first in the country for value, or 45th or 192nd. Yet there will be ratings, which are essentially value judgments, based on how a school does on measures such as average tuition, student loan debt, the share of students who receive Pell grants, graduation rates, earnings of graduates and the number of graduates who obtain advanced degrees. Education officials plan to consult with colleges as they create the ratings. There will be plenty of skepticism toward the idea from college leaders.

Glastris said that he doubts there is a significant ideological divide over what the nation wants in return for the billions of dollars taxpayers invest in higher education. But he predicted that colleges will fight back against measures to hold them accountable. The Monthly has pushed for results-oriented accountability through its rankings since 2005.

“We’ve been banging our heads against this for a long time,” Glastris said. “When we first started eight years ago, the basic idea that policymakers and influential people had about this realm was, ‘Well, we have the greatest system of higher education in the world--why are you complaining?’

“Our argument — that higher education was increasingly expensive, biased in favor of the affluent and against the working class, largely unaccountable, and maybe much less rigorous than anyone was willing to say — I can’t say it fell on deaf ears, but it certainly wasn’t conventional wisdom.”

Now, echoes of the Monthly’s views can be heard coming from the White House.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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