My wife has been teasing me since I wrote the "America's Hottest Colleges" article for the new Newsweek-Kaplan college guide coming out this week.
The 25 schools were selected after a survey of counselors, teachers, parents and students, as well as a look at application and graduation rates. But I say up front it is a subjective exercise, with no attempt to measure precisely the relative heat of, say, Grinnell, Reed and Occidental, just to cite three fine colleges that did not make the list this time. Some of the categories are somewhat playful, such as "Hottest for Cold Weather" (University of Vermont) and "Hottest for Happy-To-Be-There" (University of Pennsylvania). My wife thinks this is not suitable for the serious business of picking a college.
The Newsweek-Kaplan guide has provided a hottest list every year since 2000. At first there were no categories, just descriptions of a few schools that were drawing unusual attention. The categories we have since adopted often change from year to year and are not like those found on other lists. Last year, for instance, Rice University was declared Hottest for Double Majors and the University of California-Santa Barbara was Hottest for Surf-and-Ski.
Nobody fools around this way with the founding father of college ranking, U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges." The people at U.S. News are like my wife -- serious journalists who prefer to turn academic reputation, selectivity, faculty strength and other factors into precise numerical values and present a list that bears a resemblance to modern social science.
I like the U.S. News list, despite the grief it gets from college presidents who think it cheapens and distorts the educational values they are sworn to uphold. Before U.S. News started collecting its data in 1983, colleges put out information in different forms and based on different premises that make it very difficult for applicants and their families to compare one college to another. Because U.S. News insists on conformity in SAT, class size, graduation information and other data, ordinary people who do not have the time or expertise to crunch the numbers can still be assured that the rankings have some validity.
My problem with the U.S. News list is that by blending so many different factors into one rank for each school, it makes it difficult to detect those intriguing advantages -- from a poet-rich English department to a splendid ultimate Frisbee team -- that a lower ranked college may have over the big boys in the top 10. It is those charming little peculiarities that sometimes make the difference between a good and a great four years.
So I think the less scientific "America's Hottest Colleges" has its place, as do the several other guides that try to put a little summer fun into what can be for some applicants a dreary forced march from one campus tour to another, with Mom and Dad insisting that everyone take careful notes.
I enjoy, for instance, reading the Princeton Review's ranked mini-categories at the beginning of its selective college guide, such as those schools where "Professors Suck All Life From Materials" and those with "Dorms Like Palaces." Several online guides have adopted this approach, and even U.S. News, in its Ultimate College Guide, provides a separate list of schools that might squeeze you in even if they do not get your application until mid-August.
Please now add to that list of less conventional guides a new effort at college ranking by the Washington Monthly. This often clever and contrary political journal has been sniping at the U.S. News list for several years, arguing that its rankings don't measure the right things and don't follow standard statistical practice. U.S. News has defended itself well against these critiques and now has the pleasure of seeing its tormentor join the game. The Washington Monthly staff appear to have realized that the only way to get anyone to pay attention to their complaints about U.S. News was to come up with a competing list. It can be found at washingtonmonthly.com.
The headline on the Washington Monthly article accompanying the new list says: "Other guides ask what colleges can do for you. We ask what are colleges doing for the country." The Washington Monthly's idea is to rate colleges in ways that will encourage them to send more students into national and community service, spend more on beneficial research and try harder to enroll and graduate low-income students.
The formula is complicated, and it has some of the same weighting issues that make it hard for me to understand the U.S. News list, but it is clearly a departure from the weekly magazine's emphasis on academic reputation, selectivity, faculty strengths and class size. The Washington Monthly list uses the percentage of students in Army or Navy Research 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, a factor that gives more points to schools with many students using federal Pell Grants and a graduation rate higher than expected for having so many disadvantaged students. Each category and factor gets equal weight, the magazine says.
I asked Washington Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris if his young staff, many of them educated at colleges where joining ROTC can be a major social blunder, objected to awarding points for training military officers. "Not at this magazine," he said. "We are the people who want to draft everybody." He reminded me of a Washington Monthly article in March suggesting required national service for anyone who wants to go to college.
The monthly's results are rather different from what you usually find on the top 10 lists. Harvard, tied with Princeton for No. 1 on the latest U.S. News list, drops to No. 16 on the Monthly's list, below Texas A&M at No. 7. Princeton does even worse, No. 44, below Iowa State at No. 34.
I imagine those schools that don't do well will complain about the methodology. That is the way the game is played. But in the process, students and parents struggling through the admissions process will be drawn to even more schools that might have something they like, and there is nothing wrong with that.