Ranking Schools Based On What Matters

President Obama recently proposed a new college ranking system, based on more than test scores. The Washington Monthly has been doing that for years. Host Michel Martin finds out more.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are trying to hold on to summer for just a little longer so we're going to have the last installment of our Summer Songs series. That's coming up a little later. But first, continuing with our focus on education. A new class of college students is settling in, a new crop of high school seniors is busy getting those applications ready. Meanwhile, President Obama says it's time to rethink how colleges are ranked. Instead of highlighting institutions with long waiting list or fancy facilities and big price tags to match, he says schools should be scored on things like the cost of tuition, loan debt and how much graduates end up earning.

Now that idea is already getting a strong reaction from college administrators and parents who've heard about it, but the idea of an alternate ranking is nothing new to the Washington Monthly. For years they've been publishing an alternate rating system that ranks schools on attributes that include how well they promote social mobility, public service and economic value. The annual ranking just came out, so we thought this would be a good time to call editor-in-chief Paul Glastris back to tell us more about it and his opinion of the president's proposal. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

PAUL GLASTRIS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about your rankings. You base them on things like students that receive Pell Grants, graduation rates, research expenditures, bachelors to Ph.D. rankings - you know, why that? And how did you start with this idea?

GLASTRIS: So we looked at the U.S. News rankings - I used to work at U.S. News and loved working there but was never quite sold on their ranking system. And when I came to the Washington Monthly thought, you know, we criticize them pretty heavily for their way of doing things, which is to look at things like the prestige of an institution or how many - how exclusive they are, how many students they don't let in or how much money they spend, right, so it's money, prestige and exclusivity. And we thought, well, first of all, that's a terrible incentive system for the higher education in general, given that everyone needs to get, more or less, some kind of post-secondary education these days to have a shot at the middle-class. And second, if we're so smart we should ought to come up with an alternative. So we said, what are the things that we as citizens and taxpayers want out of our universities?

You know, we spend about 150 billion a year in federal dollars on our higher education system. We don't ask for very much in return. So we said, what are the three things that we want out of our system? One, we want it to be what it has traditionally been - a route to the middle-class, a route up for the average person. So social mobility. So we said, all right, let's look at schools that recruit and graduate students of modest means. And we measured that through Pell Grants. We said we want schools to be engines of economic growth. That means research and creating Ph.D.'s in the knowledge of the future. And we said we want students to give something back to their country. And so we measured service based on things like ROTC...

MARTIN: ...ROTC...

GLASTRIS: ...ROTC, Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Peace Corps - do the students go on to the Peace Corps? And some other measures of service. So those three things we put together and that was our first big ranking.

MARTIN: I want to go back to those rankings a little later but I want to turn now to the president's proposal. Your categories include best bang for your buck. That's kind of the heart of what the president says that he is aiming for. But a lot of college administrators who've already weighed in say that they think this is a terrible idea. They think that in fact if you include things like graduation rates, for example, and how much graduates earn after graduation, that what you will then do is make it harder for rising students or students who are not already affluent to get in because what colleges and universities will be tempted to do is cherry pick. You know, what do you say to that?

GLASTRIS: Well, it sort of all depends on how you measure it, right? If you measure wrong, then you're going to create incentives for the - exactly the kind of gaming you're talking about. When we do our best bang for the buck measure, which is, as you say, is if you look at what the administration is saying it's - generally ours is exactly what they would be doing.

What we say is - we set it up so that to make the list of our best bang for the buck colleges you have to have at least 20 percent of your students on Pell Grants. And if you have more you're not penalized for having more 'cause usually those schools have lower graduation rates. So if you factor that in from the beginning, I think you can avoid those problems.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking President Obama's proposal to change the way colleges are ranked, assigning points for things like affordability rather than exclusivity. We're speaking with Paul Glastris, he's editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. And we called him because they've been doing alternative rankings for nearly a decade now.

Talk a little bit, if you would, about the role that you say lawmakers play in the rising cost of tuition. One of president's - as part of the motivation for this is that college has really become out of reach. It is an essential credential on the one hand, but it's become out of reach for too many people and in part that's because there's been such a - the cost of attending college has far outstripped the rate of inflation and he says, in essence, sort of jawboning people to try to do something about that. But you say that the policymakers play a role in that. What role?

GLASTRIS: Well, it's a kind of benign neglect or not-benign neglect, right? We write checks in the form of student aid and so forth for the higher education system, the same as we write checks for the health-care system, but we don't, when we write the checks, as the federal government as taxpayers, demand anything in return. We don't demand that they keep control of costs. We don't demand that financial aid goes to those who are most in economic need. And so consequently the cost of college has been going up and up and up as universities - in part because universities are trying to rise on the U.S. News scale, right? The more you spend, the higher you go. And in part because there's no restraint.

And so what I think the president is saying is we've gotten to the point now where a college education is so expensive and making the wrong choice if you are a person of modest means is so risky, right - you could wind up with a five figure debt that you'll never pay off - especially if you don't graduate, that we need some metrics to inform students about where they're likely to get a college degree that they can afford that means something in the market so that they can have an income to pay off the debt. And what he's also saying is we should tie federal aid to that ranking system.

MARTIN: We recently spoke with the president of Morgan State University - speaking of student aid - and the focus of that conversation was the tighter lending standards that have been imposed by the Obama administration. The president of Morgan State along with a number of other presidents of historically black colleges and universities, so called HBCU, say this is having a terrible effect on their student population because people are being disqualified for minor things that really have nothing to do with their ability to repay. For example, in an (unintelligible) errors. You know, but the broader question here is that the historically black colleges and universities have traditionally done very well in your rankings. Now why is that?

GLASTRIS: Well, not all of them have but some of them have done tremendously well. Morehouse is one of the top 30 liberal arts schools, for instance. And Evergreen State and Alcorn State and quite a few African-American...

MARTIN: ...Spelman.

GLASTRIS: ...Spelman...

MARTIN: ...Spelman College.

GLASTRIS: ...That's right. Those schools, in general, meet our expectations because they recruit students of low-income - we don't use race as a criteria but do use income - a lot low-income students. They graduate them at higher rates than you would expect given that, as I said, low-income students tend to graduate at lower rates. So they do a good job of graduating their students. They keep their costs down, right - and a lot of these schools have good research budgets. And a lot of these students do go on to serve their country in the military and elsewhere. So HBCU's tend to shine. But there are some that don't, right?

There are some that have graduation rates - we have a story by Jamaal Abdul-alim in the current issue. He goes back to his alma mater, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, which has a terrible graduation rate for African-Americans. He made it out, but he struggled, and he goes back and talks to other African-Americans to find out what is holding them back. What is this school failing to do? And there are a lot of schools - that's not a HBCU -but there are plenty of HBCU's that do a terrible job. So, you know, there's good players and bad players on all sectors.

MARTIN: You also rank community colleges in this...

GLASTRIS: ...That's right. We're the only publication that does.

MARTIN: And why is that?

GLASTRIS: Well, I think that other publications are chasing ad dollars and they're thinking that, you know, most people who go to community college - they go to the nearest community college. They don't think it through, so what's the point? There's no business case for it. But our way of thinking is, again, this is a - what are universities doing for the country and for the taxpayer. As with HBCU's or any of the - there are good community colleges, there are great community colleges, actually. The 50 that we point out are, by many measures, better in terms of the learning happening in the classroom than some of the flagship top schools in the top 100 of the U.S. News.

MARTIN: And how do you measure that?

GLASTRIS: So there's a survey that's done every year by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. They look at learning practices that through research we know lead to better outcomes. And some of the schools on our list score higher on that survey than top 100 school - national universities do that are on U.S. News & World Report. So there are outstanding community colleges and there are others that are just terrible. And we have another story by Haley Sweetland Edwards about the San Francisco Bay area. Most of its community colleges are at the bottom of the barrel. They're just terrible community colleges and there are governance reasons for that.

MARTIN: I don't want to leave people in suspense anymore about who you rank at the top. For those who can't wait to find out. The - Harvard and Stanford are in the top 10 for national universities.

GLASTRIS: But they're the only Ivy Leagues that are.

MARTIN: But the University of California at San Diego ranks number one. Now why is that?

GLASTRIS: That's the fourth year in a row for that school. They do an outstanding job on all three of our metrics. A large portion of their student body is on Pell Grants. They graduate those students at higher-than-expected rates. They do great on service and they're a research powerhouse. In fact, there's a - about half the top 15 schools are University of California schools.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we have about a minute and a half left, I wanted to ask you, how do you convince students and parents and families to look at your ideas about what makes a good school? I mean, this idea that you should be kind of chasing the most prestige, the biggest name, the name that people know.

I mean, you know, you often hear about sort of international students who don't know anything about colleges and universities but just go down the list of the things that they've heard about and just based on that alone. And you can understand the magnetic force of that. How do you persuade people to think differently about what really matters?

GLASTRIS: Well, I think that the public is probably ahead of us on this. Most people do not try to get their kids into Harvard. They, A, don't think they have the money, B, the kid's not - doesn't have that kind of SAT scores. Most people attend more open admission public schools in their state or area. This ranking will help with that. Now look, if you can get your kid or you can get into a selective school, more power to you. I went to one, I bet you went to one. There's nothing wrong with going to a selective school, 95 percent - 90 percent of Americans don't go to those schools. This is the ranking for the 95 percent.

MARTIN: And do you think that the president's proposal - as we said, many people are concerned that it'll actually lead to more cherry picking not less because it in fact ties financial aid availability to those metrics. Good idea or bad idea?

GLASTRIS: I think it's a good idea. I think what it's going to do is make sure that the kids who are not going to the top 100 or 200 or 500 schools are going to go to schools that serve them rather than schools that don't.

MARTIN: Paul Glastris is editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Paul Glastris, thanks so much for joining us, for stopping by.

GLASTRIS: It's my pleasure.

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