Famous College Ranking Lists Failing America?

Washington Monthly released its annual college rankings this week, and black and women's colleges are ranked next to Ivy Leagues. That's because on this list, colleges score more points for promoting volunteer work and admitting more students with Pell Grants. Host Michel Martin speaks with Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris about what he believes is wrong with how popular ranking lists work now, and what students and parents should look for in a college or university.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Throughout the country, students are heading back to class. So today, we decided to have several conversations about education. Later, we'll talk about a perennial issue of concern: helping underperforming students, especially minorities, close that so-called achievement gap.

One educator says forget all that remedial business. She says educators should treat underperforming students the same way it treats gifted students. We'll hear from educator Yvette Jackson about her provocative theories of education in just a few minutes.

But first we want to talk about higher education, specifically those rankings, which have become a bigger and bigger part of the college search for many parents and students. US News & World Report publishes what is probably the best-known and most popular annual list of top institutions of higher learning.

But critics say that's all fine if all you care about is what a college does for you. If you care about what these institutions do for the country, you'd better look elsewhere, which is where Washington Monthly magazine comes in.

Its annual rankings features some top schools that may surprise some, such as the historically black Morehouse College and Spelman College and Bryn Mawr, Macalister and Pomona College.

Joining us to tell us more about the Washington Monthly college and university rankings is Paul Glastris. He is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, and he's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

PAUL GLASTRIS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You actually used to work for US News & World Report. So how did you come up with this idea of these alternate rankings? Or how did this start?

GLASTRIS: Well, I managed not to have to work on the college rankings when I was at US News, but it was sort of common knowledge that the metrics were a little bit dicey. And when I came to the Washington Monthly, we ran a series of stories exposing, in a sense, what was wrong with US News' college metrics and suggesting what they ought to do.

And eventually, we thought, well, if we're so smart, why don't we come up with rankings of our own? And so we did this.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about how your ranking system works and how it's different from what people generally are used to seeing in these rankings, including those published by US News & World Report.

GLASTRIS: The simplest way to understand it is US News measures mostly inputs, how much do they pay their professors, class sizes, things that are not unrelated academics but really don't tell you that much about how much learning is going on.

MARTIN: And before we talk about what goes into your metric, talk about why you think your idea is better. And the language I used in the introduction comes directly from you. You say that our rankings have posed a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? First of all, defend that. Why do you think that that is the question to ask?

GLASTRIS: Well, you know, the American taxpayer subsidizes America's higher education to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. It is the place where knowledge and economic growth begins. It is the place where knowledge and economic growth begins. It is the place that teaches us, college-educated folk, to be citizens, and it's the place where people of modest means can most assuredly get ahead in life.

So those are the things that we think most people would agree college is for in terms of getting something back for our tax subsidies, for our support for them. And so we decided to measure on that basis. Not so much which college is the fanciest or is going to get me, you know, the best invitations to dinner parties but how they are actually helping the country on these three different areas.

MARTIN: So the three areas that you use in your ranking are first of all, the first one you call based on social mobility. How committed are they to enrolling low-income students and helping them earn degrees? The second category looks at research production and success at sending undergraduates on to Ph.D.s. And then you give great weight to service.

I think many people might credit you with the research question, this whole question of how many people go on to actually earn advanced degrees and so forth. But the other two, just take the position of a parent who is shelling out $30,000 a year, $40,000, $50,000 a year per child and sweating bullets to do it, why would a person look at those rankings and say yes, that's me, that's something I care about.

GLASTRIS: Good question. I think that if you come from modest means, if you're a low-income family, the thing that you have to be almost more cognizant of than anything else is how good does the institution your son or daughter is about to go to, how good is it at welcoming low-income kids and making sure that they succeed by getting a degree.

MARTIN: Well, I can understand. Like I say, I can understand that that is your perspective if you're a person who's a first-generation college-goer or something of that sort. But let's just for a minute set that aside and say you're not a first generation college-goer, you're just going to college.

GLASTRIS: Right.

MARTIN: And you're paying for this, even if you're not paying the whole freight, and let's assume you have some choice in the matter, and you're not just going wherever you get the best scholarship.

Why should you care about whether an institution offers social mobility and service?

GLASTRIS: You know, I don't know that you need to care, to be quite honest. I mean, you're probably looking for, you know, the best program in the thing you want to major in. You're looking for the best deal. You're looking to either be in a city or be in warm weather. There are a lot of reasons kids go to college.

And I don't think we provide a good service for people who are looking for that. I think what we provide is a service to taxpayers, to say all right, where is your tax dollar going? Is it subsidizing the higher education we think the country needs?

This is for citizens and policymakers to say, hey, look, there's great disparity in how colleges achieve these national mandates. And take a look: some of them do a heck of a job and some of them not so much.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Paul Glastris, he's editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, which is just out with its annual college rankings list. It's a little different from the kinds of lists that you may have seen in other publications.

There are some top-ranked schools, according to your survey, who probably wouldn't even show up on the radar in others. Morehouse and Spelman are different. Morehouse College, historically black school in Atlanta, of course many famous alum including Martin Luther King Jr., Spelman College regularly show up on the list of the top liberal arts colleges. So set those aside.

But there are other institutions like Jackson State University. We have called the provost at Jackson State University, Mark Hardy, to ask him how he reacted to being named number nine on the list of top national universities. This is what he said.

MARK HARDY: I think we already knew we were good. It's just that we were excited to find out that others, you know, out there now have an opportunity to find out, you know, we're as good as we think we are. And so that's the exciting thing to us.

MARTIN: Why is an institution like Jackson State University on the list?

GLASTRIS: Jackson State does a very, very good job of the social mobility measure. They have a lot of low-income students, and they do a heck of a job of graduating them. They also have a big ROTC program. A lot of kids do community service of various kinds that we measure, and on those measures, they - and they got a decent research background. So on those measures, they're the ninth-best national university in the country.

MARTIN: You don't just define service narrowly, as what ?

GLASTRIS: The Peace Corps, and...

MARTIN: Well, according to the politics of the Washington Monthly, which let's be honest, lean left, you know, you're not hiding that fact that the politics lean left. It's the number of alumni in the Peace Corps, the percentage of federal work study, grant money spent on community service projects. It's students and faculty who complete volunteer work. But it's also the size of the ROTC in all areas. Why do you include that?

GLASTRIS: That's right. Well, we've always believed that military service is, you know, as important if not more challenging kind of service than any other.

MARTIN: You know, this is interesting. For example, you point out that Reed College in Oregon has an iconoclastic reputation, doesn't emphasize grades, very small school, enrolls only 1,400 undergraduates compared to tens of thousands at a typical public university. But in 2009, according to your report, almost as many newly-granted Ph.D.s were awarded to Reed alumni as were given to graduates of the University of Oregon or Oregon State.

GLASTRIS: There you go.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

GLASTRIS: Hard to say. I don't know Reed in detail. But, you know, teaching is immensely important; the quality of teaching, the attentiveness of teaching. At a lot of these big research universities, you know, you know if you've been through college, you know, your freshmen and sophomore classes can have 200, 300, 600 people in them. And, you know, how much actual learning goes on in that environment?

Where in a college like Reed, maybe people are actually engaged and excited, and we know engagement leads to more learning.

MARTIN: What about the - you aren't shy about criticizing the Ivies. For example, have any of them ever reacted to your rankings? I mean, Harvard is ranked typically - you know, often number one, and I'll disclose that's my alma mater.

GLASTRIS: They tend not to react. That's sort of the top Ivy League schools are haughtily indifferent to all rankings. I don't think that we've busted any reputations with our rankings. It's more that people such as the gentlemen from Jackson State are just thrilled to be finally recognized for what they're doing.

MARTIN: Finally, there has been a move afoot in recent months, you're hearing more about this. Increasingly there are those who are raising the question about whether is college is necessary at all or whether college actually does anything.

Before we let you go, would you like to weigh in on that?

GLASTRIS: There's a story in our issue this month called "Is Our Students Earning?" And it's all about new data that will let you know how much you're likely to make when you graduate and get into the workforce.

I think that the average working family would love to know, if I'm going to shell out $50,000 or $100,000 for my son or daughter, whether that son or daughter is going to be able to pay off mom and dad or the loans or get ahead in life. And so that's absolutely vital knowledge for Americans to know.

MARTIN: Paul Glastris is editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. The 2011 college rankings are available now in the September-October issue, and Paul Glastris was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you so much for joining us.

GLASTRIS: It's been great, thank you.

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