Best Liberal Colleges

U.S. News & World Report has been publishing its now-famous College Guide since my junior year in high school. It is, rightly, much critiqued for weighing some rather odd things in its rankings.

The editors at the liberal journal Washington Monthly, though, go much further: Producing their own competing guide that produces some markedly different results.

The Washington Monthly College Guide

There’s a good reason for the American fixation with rankings—if done correctly, they can help tell us what’s working and what’s not. Of course universities ought to be judged. The key is judging the right things.

Quite right. And what might those things be?

The first question we asked was, what does America need from its universities? From this starting point, we came up with three central criteria: Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth, and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service.

Unfortunately, these criteria are presumed a priori and the basis for the rest of the ranking system.

Universities should be engines of social mobility . . .

And, of course, they are. But why is this a metric by which we should measure any particular school? For one thing, it rewards schools who mostly take in students from impoverished backgrounds and unfairly penalizes schools that accept the best students, who come disproportionately from the upper echelons.

Further, much of this depends on the choices the students make. If they go on to law or medical school, to be stock traders, or other high income professions, the school is considered “good.” If they go into teaching or journalism, the school is “bad.” That makes little sense.

. . . they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth . . .

Umm, that’s two things. Or several, depending on how one parses it. I’m not sure what an “academic mind” is but we can all agree that producing highly trained intellects is the raison detre of the university. Driving economic growth? Again, that’s a byproduct of all manner of things, many of them not really the function of a university. See the previous paragraph.

. . . they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service . . .

This is the proper role of, say, a military academy or a social work department. But a university?

When I was teaching political science, I was concerned with having students come away with a knowledge of the course material, improved critical thinking skills, some mastery of written and oral exposition, and other academic things. I had my hands sufficiently full with those goals that I left ethical training to the students’ parents, clergy, and peers.

That said, the schools the magazine ranks highly are, from a cursory scan at least, all fine institutions of higher learning. But it appears to be a function of sheer happenstance rather than any reasonable methodology.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anonymous says:

    this article is contains a lot of what is know in the inner circles as flamebait