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Competing college rankings take different views of what matters

The country’s best known college rankings are probably those published every year by U.S. News and World Report. While the rankings sell magazines and advertising, their influence is often criticized as pushing colleges to drive up admissions criteria and drive down acceptance rates.
Monday, as PBS NewsHour Weekend Anchor Hari Sreenivasan starts a week-long series examining innovation in higher education called Rethinking College, Washington Monthly is out with its own college rankings. The magazine’s rankings includes a list of “Best-Bang-for-the-Buck” colleges. Many of the familiar names in elite higher education don’t make the cut.

Washington Monthly Editor Paul Glastris spoke with On Campus, the higher education desk at WGBH in Boston, about the rankings and the White House’s push for federal college ratings.

A shortened transcript of their conversation appears below.

GLASTRIS: We try to look at colleges from the point of view of the average person, and especially first generation and lower income students who have really been struggling to afford the skyrocketing cost of college.

ON CAMPUS: Most college rankings depend on things like acceptance rates, average SAT scores, who has the best sushi bar. To top your rankings, specifically what measures are you looking at?

GLASTRIS: Our main rankings, basically look at three things. Social mobility, which is the percentage of lower income students that colleges recruit and then graduate. We look at research, the amount of Ph.D.s a college creates. We believe research is a fundamental core mission of higher education. Third, we look at service to the community. Are students being encouraged to give something back for the billions of dollars of educational support the government gives them? So we look at the percentage of a school’s graduates that go into the Peace Corps, or whether they’re involved in community service on campus.

ON CAMPUS: I hate to tell you this, Paul, but I was looking at the list and I can’t help but notice some big names are missing.

GLASTRIS: It’s sad! Usually Harvard, MIT, Yale do very well on everybody’s list of best colleges — not so much ours. The top 20 schools on U.S. News & World Report are all these private colleges. On ours the top school is the University of California San Diego, and 14 of the top 20 are state-supported schools. Harvard cracks in at number ten, but Yale isn’t even in the top 30.

ON CAMPUS: Your list does include some elite colleges, though, including Amherst College here in Massachusetts. What are those schools doing right?

GLASTRIS: Amherst is an interesting case. The previous president set a goal of increasing the percentage of students at Amherst who are low-income. Amherst has a pretty good endowment, and they decided to use the proceeds from that endowment to subsidize the cost for those students. They have consistently done well on our rankings.

ON CAMPUS: The White House is holding summits on this issue and the U.S. Education Department is preparing to unveil a method that’s going to rate colleges. Are you seeing significant change in how the public thinks about successful schools?

GLASTRIS: Once we put out our ‘Best Bang for the Buck’ ranking, the White House came out with this proposal about rating schools that are more or less the same criteria we use. So we think we’ve had some impact, on how others rate colleges and I think we’re going to have some impact on how the government rates colleges.

ON CAMPUS: Do you think the Obama administration will be successful in creating a national college rating system? Because all the college presidents I’ve spoken with say this is impossible.

GLASTRIS: I think they’re going to do it regardless of what the college presidents say. President Obama has that capacity and the data is there. The data could be better if the colleges would get behind more transparency. So we can have ratings that do a pretty good job of giving consumers and taxpayers are providing value for the money, bang for the buck, and which less so. But it would help to have the better data.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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