Speaking of universities...

Last night, Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly, was on The Colbert Report touting his magazine's new college rankings, which take a pretty hefty swipe at the ones done by US News & World Report every year.

On the one hand, we’ve long argued that the U.S. News ratings are silly, because they don’t measure what its editors say they measure: academic excellence. What U.S. News does to arrive at its results involves gauging things like average faculty salaries, for instance, or the level of praise for one college from the presidents of other colleges. Maybe that’s not totally useless, but it’s also a bit like assessing the quality of restaurants based on the effectiveness of their advertising and how much they spend on linen....

We believe that what colleges do matters not just to prospective applicants, but also to the rest of us. After all, America depends on its institutions of higher education for a variety of crucial public tasks: conducting the cutting-edge research that drives the economy; offering students from low-income families a path to a better life; and positively shaping the characters of the young people who will go on to lead the country. Government provides colleges and universities with billions of dollars in research grants, tax benefits, and student financial aid to achieve these goals. If parents and teachers deserve to know how well colleges are spending their tuition dollars, shouldn’t average citizens also have a way of finding out how well schools are spending their tax dollars?

Let me begin by saying that I hate, hate, hate the whole "how are they spending our tax dollars" argument, because it's bogus. It presumes that education must be valued in an economic sense, that if there is no profit attached to it, it's well-nigh useless. But other than that, I like what the Washington Monthly is doing, because their rankings value recruitment and graduation of underprivileged students, and has a focus on public service beyond graduation.

Let's just say that FAU falls considerably short, which isn't surprising. FAU is a university in transition, from a commuter school of, at times, last resort, to a more traditional university, and is doing so in the face of both harsh economic times for universities and in a state where the lion's share of funding goes to Gators (who came in at 26th just ahead of Harvard), not Burrow Owls. Our numbers will go up as we transition--our graduation rates are traditionally low because we've had low entrance requirements, and because a large percentage of our student body is made up of non-traditional students who are going to school part-time and take longer to graduate. But it's going to take a while.

The interesting thing to me was how the top of the rankings came out by this measure. The best known Ivy League schools are nowhere near the top ten--Harvard clocks in at 27th of 230, just outside the top ten percent. Texas A&M is at the top of the list, with 5 California universities in the top 10, 4 of them public universities. Stanford and Cornell are the only two private schools in the top ten.

There's been a good bit of this sort of thing lately--using different measuring sticks to compare institutions. Tom Kealey, a friend of mine from Stanford, did it with MFA programs, and upended some of the long-held assumptions about which programs are superior to others. He and his team have done some interesting work. Check them out.

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