Texas A&M Best School in US
Via Kevin Drum, I see that the liberal Washington Monthly magazine has put out its rankings [WARNING: PDF] of the best colleges and universities in the country and, unlike the older U.S. News list, theirs is dominated by public schools, with Texas A&M ranking 1st, a full twenty-six slots ahead of Harvard and seventy-seven ahead of Princeton, which has lately dominated the U.S. News list.
Why the disparity? In an essay entitled, “The Tyranny of Prestige,” editor Paul Glastris explains,
Remember, we aren’t trying, as U.S. News does, to rate how selective or academically prestigious a given school is, but rather how much it contributes to the common good. The whole point is to recognize the broader role colleges and universities play in our national life and to reward those institutions that best fulfill that role. After all, almost every major challenge America now faces—from stagnant wages to the lack of fluent Arab speakers in the federal government—could be met in part by better harnessing the power of our colleges and universities.
So instead of measuring, say, the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen, or the percentage of alumni who donate money, we rank colleges based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and service. In other words, is the school recruiting and graduating low-income students? Is it producing PhDs and cutting-edge research? And is it encouraging in its students an ethic of service?
Glastris fully admits that his measurement is not perfect, observing that information he’d like to include — say, how much students actually learn and how many graduates go on to teach school and the like — just isn’t available.
While this list is not threat to replace the U.S. News version any time soon — prestige and networking effects are things parents and kids look at when selecting schools, after all — it’s an interesting heuristic for spurring debate.
Even if we accept Glastris’ premise for the role of universities, it’s debatable as to how well his list captures it. TAMU gets a huge boost because of its sizable Corps of Cadets, for example and large schools in general get rewarded by metrics like “PhDs awarded” which are based on raw numbers. Curiously, too, schools are penalized for having lower than predicted graduation rates. Since the elite schools have high predictions (indeed, several are somehow supposed to graduate 2 percent more students than they take in!) they lose sensitivity points when some drop out. (Thus, MIT would get penalized for students who quit school to devote full time to a multi-million-dollar-a-year tech company they started as freshmen.) These flaws are exacerbated by treating all factors equally.