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Higher Education Of a Different Order

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2005

Not that they pay attention to rankings or anything, but Princeton and Harvard -- tied for first on U.S. News & World Report's latest "America's Best Colleges" -- will have to scroll down several places to find their names on a new ratings list based on community and national service.

The Washington Monthly, a District-based political magazine that has made a specialty of trashing the U.S. News rankings, plans to put on its http://washingtonmonthly.com/ Web site today its own college guide, with Harvard relegated to No. 16, far below No. 7 Texas A&M, and No. 44 Princeton humiliated by No. 34 Iowa State.

"Other guides ask what colleges can do for you," the magazine announces in the September issue coming out Aug. 29. "We ask what are colleges doing for the country."

Some publications take a playful approach to college ranking, such as the somewhat subjective "America's Hottest Colleges" in the latest Kaplan-Newsweek college guide, or the "Reefer Madness" marijuana-friendly schools and other rankings in the Princeton Review's 2005 edition of "The Best 357 Colleges."

The Washington Monthly staff in the past has debunked the weighting and categories in the annual U.S. News list, citing a report in 2000 that the weightings lacked any "empirical or theoretical basis." But they have embraced similar statistical complexities, they say, to force higher education in a different direction. In an accompanying article, they say they hope this will encourage colleges to send more students into national and community service, spend more on beneficial research and try harder to enroll and graduate low-income applicants.

Their list uses the percentage of students in Army or Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), the percentage of graduates in the Peace Corps, the percentage of federal work-study grants used for community service projects, the total amount of research spending, the number of doctorates granted in the hard sciences and, as a measure of social mobility, the percentage of students on Pell Grants, with a bonus for schools whose graduation rates are higher than expected for having so many low-income students.

"What really did in Princeton were mediocre scores on national service and social mobility, categories in which it should have excelled," the article says of the new list's results. It says "Harvard has the lowest percentage of Pell Grant recipients in its student body of any school in the country."

A spokeswoman for Princeton and a spokesman for Harvard declined to comment because they had not seen the article, the list or the research behind it.

The first 10 schools on the Washington Monthly's list of 200 national universities are MIT, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Cornell, Stanford, Penn State, Texas A&M, UC-San Diego, Pennsylvania and Michigan in that order. On the just-released U.S. News list, based on academic reputation, selectivity, faculty strength and other factors, MIT is seventh, UCLA 25th, UC-Berkeley 20th, Cornell 13th, Stanford 5th, Penn State 48th, Texas A&M 60th, UC-San Diego 32nd, Pennsylvania fourth and Michigan also 25th.

On a separate Washington Monthly list of 200 liberal arts colleges, the first 10 schools are Wellesley, Wesleyan (Connecticut), Bryn Mawr, Harvey Mudd, Fisk, Amherst, Haverford, Wofford, Colby and Spelman. On the U.S. News liberal arts list, Wellesley is fourth, Wesleyan 12th, Bryn Mawr 21st, Harvey Mudd 18th, Fisk 121st, Amherst second, Haverford 8th, Wofford 55th, Colby 20th and Spelman 73rd.

On the U.S. News list, the highest ranking liberal arts college in Virginia is Washington and Lee University, at No. 14. On the Washington Monthly list, the highest-ranking Virginia school, at No. 12, is the Virginia Military Institute, largely because all of its undergraduates are in ROTC. VMI spokesman Stewart MacInnis said that since its founding the school has been dedicated to making "people ready in time of war to fight the war if need be, and to contribute to society throughout their lives."

Texas A&M also benefited from having a large number of students in ROTC. "Duty, honor and service are the core values that Texas A&M is all about," said spokeswoman Sherylon Carroll.

Fisk, a historically black college in Nashville with fewer than 900 undergraduates, placed high on the monthly's list because it admitted a large number of Pell Grant students and had a higher graduation rate than predicted for a school with so many low-income undergraduates.

Fisk spokesman Ken West called the ranking "spectacular news." He said the school's small size and 12-to-1 student-faculty ratio allowed it to teach and graduate students who might have dropped out of larger and more impersonal institutions.

Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll, whose school scored high on community service, said, "It appears this ranking does more closely measure what we are trying to do than some other national rankings." Wellesley spokeswoman Mary Ann Hill said the list measured qualities that are "manifest throughout a Wellesley education."

Robert J. Morse, director of data research for U.S. News and accustomed to Washington Monthly sniping whenever his list comes out in late August, welcomed them to the rating game. "We are glad that they have decided to join us in publishing college rankings," he said.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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