Ranking University Rankings


Time was, if you wanted to go to college, the first step was to buy the college ranking issue of US News & World Report. USNWR had a certain authority combined with predictability. Each year the editors could tweak the criteria just enough to shift some schools one or two slots up or down. This year, Princeton University ranked No. 1, followed by Harvard, and then Yale and the University of Chicago tied for No. 3. The first public universities to make the list are the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA, tied at 21. Of the traditional public ivies, the University of Virginia ranks 25th and the University of Michigan 28th.

What’s different now is the proliferation of publications offering their own ratings, although somehow the results tend to be similar. The Ivies come first, with a few of the highly regarded private schools mixed in as if for seasoning. Stanford, MIT, Johns Hopkins and University of Chicago turn up now and then.

The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education list leads with Harvard, Columbia, MIT and Stanford. UCLA was the top-rated public school at No. 25, followed closely by the University of Michigan at No. 27, but in this list, the University of Virginia was No. 56. The WSJ review is looking at outcomes. So that Harvard, whose graduates can expect to be earning $91,000/year 10 years after graduation, not only edges out MIT at $90,000, but vastly outdoes Columbia ($74,000) and Yale ($70,000). Still, these numbers are difficult to interpret since they aren’t weighted by the number of graduates and their majors. Harvard has a graduate school of education, and Texas pays $37,040 for a teacher with 10 years of experience. By the same token, USNWR uses the percentage of graduates who donate to the school as a surrogate measure of alumni spirit. This may be valid – or not. Donating to the school is a function of both school spirit and ready cash. A school that graduates a large number of hedge fund managers will have a major edge over a school that trains teachers and librarians.

One of the more interesting rankings is published by Washington Monthly. Their rankings try to include education with research and public service. ”… we recognize universities that produce research, train the next generation of scientists and PhDs and instill their graduates with an ethos of public service.” There are a few surprises in the Washington Monthly rankings. Stanford, which is No. 5 in USNWR, takes first place and Harvard is No. 2. MIT, No. 7 in USNWR, comes in third. What is surprising is Utah State University, which is 13th in Washington Monthly but 220th in USNWR. Washington Monthly’s highest-rated public university is Texas A&M at 4th place,

Then Sierra Club has its own ratings, “cool schools”. “Following President Donald Trump’s June announcement that he is withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, more than 300 colleges and universities declared their intent to continue reducing carbon emissions.” With the appreciation of the fact that sustainability is part of the future, Sierra’s listing starts with College of the Atlantic at No. 1, Green Mountain College No. 2. Sterling College No. 3 and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry No. 4.

Overall, these reviews don’t offer much in the way of revelations. Rich is better. The traditional Ivy League schools, with their large endowments and well-off alumni base, are generally near the top, alongside well-regarded private universities, but the public universities are suffering. This is largely along political lines. According to Pew Research, “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.”

The result, inevitably, is that when Republicans get control of a state, even a state with an excellent higher education system, there is an inclination to whittle away at the funding, to cut programs or, as in Wisconsin, eliminating tenure. Iowa and Missouri are already considering this move. While tenure doesn’t provide real job security, it’s something of a symbol of recognition by a university. In most states with a strong Republican legislature and governor, the goal is to focus the state university system into a training camp for the occupations that the local employers are looking for, without regard for research or the liberal arts or humanities.

Washington Monthly deals with this directly: “Private and better funded public universities can offer talented new professors not only more money, but also more stability – and they can treat midwestern universities like candy stores, shopping for star faculty who may be ready to jump ship.”

According to NPR, “States in the Midwest are desperately trying to attract and retain recent college graduates. Young professionals continue to flee places like Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas.” It’s unlikely that will change until those states offer the universities more respect.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living in New York. Email sdu01@outlook.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2017


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