I met Robert J. Samuelson, the Newsweek and Washington Post columnist, the first week of my life as a reporter, in the spring of my college sophomore year. He was a sophomore too, but already a star on the campus newspaper and assigned to edit the work of hopeless novices like me.
He gave my first news story a long, worried look and handed it back to me. "This is all wrong," he said.
Over the years he has become much nicer to me, perhaps because I have learned, through close observation, some of his secrets, like the appalling condition of the bathroom in his apartment when he was a bachelor and the fact that despite his attempts to be a gruff dad, he sometimes breaks down at his children's bat and bar mitzahs.
I try to read everything he writes, because he is one of the most original thinkers in American journalism, always asking questions the rest of us ignore. And I become upset when some of his best work doesn't get the attention it deserves, like his piece "In Praise of Rankings" in the just-published 2005 edition of the Kaplan Newsweek College Guide.
This is the season for rating colleges, led by U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" and an assortment of other lists, like the fun-loving Princeton Review guide's "Reefer Madness" and "Dorms Like Palaces" categories and the Kaplan Newsweek guide's pick of "America's Hottest Colleges."
As part of the ritual, college president associations send press releases every year to education reporters like me saying how hideous these rankings are and reminding us that each of their campuses in special in its own way. Most of us who write about college admissions share the view that the rankings are tacky and unscientific, although that doesn't stop us from referring to them often in our stories.
But Samuelson, in his new piece, looks at the issue from an entirely different angle. He explores the early years of college ranking and discovers that the standings have changed in ways that reveal a hitherto unappreciated dynamic in the American obsession with brand-name schools. "A Harvard degree isn't the status symbol it used to be," he says, "and that goes for Yale and Princeton too."
Samuelson and I, for obvious reasons, revere the Washington Post Co., which wants to sell as many copies of Kaplan Newsweek guide as possible. You can read it free here | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5626554/site/newsweek/. And since it can also be found in many supermarket checkout counter magazine racks, if your shopping cart is in one of those long lines that confront me on Saturday morning, you have more than enough time to grab the guide, read Samuelson's piece on page 7, and return it to the rack before anyone notices.
One reason the Ivies have lost some luster, Samuelson says, is that college by itself is not so important any more. "More Americans now go to graduate school -- and graduate degrees count heavily in the job market and the status derby," he says. "Consider: in 1960, 392,000 Americans got bachelor's degrees and about 100,000 got graduate and professional degrees. By 2001 the numbers were 1.2 million and 600,000. So, if you go to Podunk and then to Harvard for graduate work, your Podunk degree is enhanced. Conversely, Harvard grads attending Podunk for graduate school may find their college degrees diminished. Of course, many Harvard alumni got to fine graduate schools, but there's much mixing. In 2003 only 15 percent of the incoming class at Harvard Law had been Harvard undergraduates."
But an even more intriguing trend is underway. Three decades ago, Samuelson says, we only had a few luxury cars, like Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes. Now rising demand for plush upholstery and dashboard gizmos has led to several more high-priced brands, like Lexus, Acura and Infiniti. The same thing is happening to colleges. "Frustrated at not getting their children into elite schools," he says, "Americans are creating more elite schools."
Look at the rise of certain colleges on the U.S. News list. Duke didn't even make the first rankings in 1983, but it invested heavily in faculty salaries, new buildings and promotion (Samuelson reveals that 70 percent of private colleges like Duke spend $1,000 or more on every recruited freshman). This year Duke is tied for fifth.
There are other successful social climbers. Washington University in St. Louis didn't make the U.S. News list until 1987, at number 23. But it worked hard to improve its image. Ask that straight-A high school senior down the block how many letters and messages she has gotten from Wash U. This year the school is tied for 11th, and is ahead of Ivy League members Brown and Cornell.
I think there are many more schools that do not make the U.S. News list but provide just as fine an education for students whose needs fit those schools' particular strengths. Samuelson's piece shows, from a historical viewpoint, how mushy and variable the rankings can be, making it clear that even by the U.S. News standards there are more schools than ever that can compete with Yale and that ilk in faculty salaries, test scores and grad school acceptance rates.
Samuelson and I discovered this two years ago when our high school senior daughters were attracted to several schools that our neighbors in the Ivy-obsessed suburbs of Washington, D.C., would not have put at the top of their lists. I gathered from my conversations with Samuelson at that time that he had some differences with his daughter on exactly which school might be the best for her, but we are both old enough to realize who is in charge. Ruthie Samuelson and Katie Mathews choose great, if lesser known, Sun Belt schools that are part of the expansion of quality Samuelson's piece reveals.
"There's a convergence of interests," he says. "Ambitious schools crave better students, while more students who once might have attended the old elite can't. They, and their parents, then become a social force to broaden the elite. Their cheering and careers confer new respectability or formerly 'second tier' schools. What makes new Harvards is envy and emulation of the old."