Five Ways to Pick America's College

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006 10:10 AM

Get out the banners, and the complaints. It is college-ranking week. U.S. News & World Report has put out its famous list of "America's Best Colleges." The Newsweek-Kaplan college guide has its "America's Hottest Colleges." The complaints come because colleges don't like being sorted by journalists. Their presidents will fill newspaper op-ed pages with reasoned explanations why their essences cannot be reduced to a few numbers.

But in August, magazine editors have trouble finding stuff to fill the empty pages, so I say, rank away. And for chutzpah, imagination and verve, there is no doubt this year what gets the prize for best college list. Applause, please, for the Washington Monthly list, which asks not which college is best for you, but which is best for your country.

The Washington Monthly is a small magazine, founded by a lover of contrarian thought named Charlie Peters and usually staffed by young writers who only recently, according to one of them, were being paid anything that approached the minimum wage. The magazine's editor, Paul Glastris, has tried to maintain the mischievous quality of the 37-year-old publication, and the college list, in its second year, is proof that he is succeeding.

Here is how the magazine's editors explained what they were up to in the introduction to the latest list, also available on their Web site : "What are reasonable indicators of how much a school is benefiting the country? We came up with three: how well it performs as an engine of social mobility (ideally helping the poor to get rich rather than the very rich to get very, very rich), how well it does in fostering scientific and humanistic research, and how well it promotes an ethic of service to country."

The monthly editors have been exceedingly clever in devising ways to measure these elusive qualities, and at the same time help high school seniors who are as patriotic as any American teens, but just want to get their parents off their back and find the right college.

It is hard to summarize this list. I had to read the "Note on Methodology" three times before I understood it. But the accompanying stories are very entertaining and the list itself, if broken down into its various categories, is irresistible. Here are my five favorite parts, each shining light on well-known and lesser-known colleges from new directions, and illuminating several hitherto dark corners.

1. Social Mobility in the national universities.

This is probably the most innovative and complex statistic on the list. Almost all colleges and universities say they want to recruit more low-income students and make sure they graduate, but which are actually doing it? The colleges do not have to report the graduation rates of their low-income students, so the Washington Monthly has invented a system that sees how good their overall graduation rates actually are compared to what would be expected, given their selectivity and the number of low-income students they admit. The results are refreshingly weird. The number one ranked school on this scale is South Carolina State University, followed in order by the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio University and Widener University in Pennsylvania.

2. Work study funds spent on public service job.

The concept is simple -- do the students who accept federal funds for work-study jobs at your college choose public service jobs, like soup kitchens and hospitals? The results are, again, surprising. Number one is the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which is only 164 on the overall Washington Monthly list. The second through fifth ranked schools on the public service job list are Alabama A & M University; University of California, Riverside; Case Western Reserve University and Iowa State University.

3. Getting from liberal arts college to a PhD.

Up to now there has never been a member of my branch of the Mathews family who even thought of getting a doctorate, but my daughter may give it a try, so I was intrigued to see the Washington Monthly list rank liberal arts colleges on the percentage of their graduates who received PhDs. This produced a less surprising list, with the order close to what you see in U.S. News, with one very interesting exception. Here are the top five, with their U.S. News 2006 place in parenthesis: Swarthmore (3), Reed (53), Williams (1), Pomona (7) and Oberlin (22). Notice how low Reed scores on the U.S. News list. Its president says this is the result of its refusal to give U.S. News its data. Given the Washington Monthly ranking, I think he has a point.

4. Triumph of the big state schools.

On the Washington Monthly overall national university list, Princeton in number 43, Harvard 28 and Yale 12. The top five schools on the list are MIT, UC Berkeley, Penn State, UCLA and Texas A & M. The magazine notes that there are four UC campuses in the top 10, and the rest no lower on the list than 72 (UC Riverside.) We native Californians say yea.

5. Military service counts.

The Washington Monthly has a liberal orientation, like its founder and the bright young staffers who write for it, so it surprised me to find its list gives major credit to colleges that produce graduates who go into the military, usually not a popular institution in colleges that produce monthly editors. I am glad I served in the Army after I graduated from college and wish more of my classmates had joined me. So this item interested me. Here are the top five schools in the category (the national military academies were excluded for having too much of an advantage): national universities -- University of San Diego, South Carolina State University, MIT, Widener University, Florida Institute of Technology, and liberal arts colleges -- Virginia Military Institute, Presbyterian College (in South Carolina), Wofford College (in South Carolina), Claremont McKenna, and Wheaton College in Illinois.

As a special bonus for those college applicants not thrilled by bayonet practice and rifle drills, here are the top schools rated by the monthly for graduate participation in the Peace Corps: national universities -- Dartmouth, Georgetown, William & Mary, University of Chicago and American; liberal arts colleges -- Kalamazoo, Grinnell, Whitman, Bryn Mawr and Beloit.

And one last note, gender related: The top two liberal arts schools on the Washington Monthly list are Bryn Mawr and Wellesley, in that order, followed by Wesleyan, Haverford and Amherst. Mount Holyoke is number six. I have never thought of the women's colleges as hotbeds of Americanism, but this list overturns a lot of flawed assumptions, which is what a good college list should do. Take a look. I can't wait to see what they come up with next year.

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