The Washington Monthly Goes To College

Daniel DeVise at WaPo:

Washington Monthly, a magazine with unusually robust higher education coverage, today released its own attempt at a ranking of colleges and universities.

The magazine is a relatively new entrant to the rankings field, which has become very crowded in recent years.

The trick is to offer something different than U.S. News & World Report, whose rankings stress reputation, graduation rates, test scores and other measures that produce a fairly predictable list of well-endowed and prestigious universities. At its genesis in the 1980s, a simple formula that yielded a ranking with Harvard, Princeton and Yale at the top made all the sense in the world, a gratifying affirmation of common wisdom. Three decades later, the approach is a magnet for criticism: the rankings are seen by some as telling college customers something they already know.

Washington Monthly rates and ranks colleges “based on their contribution to the public good,” and in three categories: “Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).”

(Whether those criteria ought to be the basis for choosing a college is a topic for another day.)

The ranking yields unusual results. Public universities fare well, because of their strength in research and fairly high marks for serving low-income students. Three University of California campuses, in San Diego (!), Berkeley and Los Angeles, rank 1-2-3 among national universities by the WaMo formula. Harvard ranks ninth, Yale 33rd.

The College of William and Mary ranks a very respectable 10th on that list, partly because of its second-in-the-nation ranking for producing Peace Corps volunteers. (Who knew?) Georgetown ranks 19th.

David Moltz at Inside Higher Ed:

The Washington Monthly has yet again irked some educators, as it did three years ago, by ranking what it calls “America’s Best Community Colleges” using openly available student engagement survey data.

Using benchmarking data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and four-year federal graduation rates in an equation of its own making, the magazine attempts to rank the top 50 community colleges in the country in its latest issue. Though the periodical’s editors say they only hope to highlight “what works and what doesn’t” at these institutions by ranking them, CCSSE officials have denounced the use of their data in this way and argue it may do more harm than good.

Community colleges are often underrecognized,” said Kevin Carey, author of the magazine’s community college rankings and policy director at Washington-based think tank Education Sector. “But there’s been a lot of attention paid to them, thanks to the president’s recent effort [with the American Graduation Initiative]. Since he supports investing and improving community colleges, we felt like it was a good time to ask, ‘What do good community colleges look like?’ If we’re going to spend a lot of money, let’s see what reflects best practices out there.”

Carey admitted that such a ranking of community colleges would not be possible without data from CCSSE, a survey run by the University of Texas at Austin that goes out to students at around 650 two-year institutions and uses the results to judge the colleges on broad categories such as “active and collaborative learning,” “student effort,” “academic challenge,” “student-faculty interaction” and “support for learners.” Though every participating college’s survey data are made public, institutional officials are encouraged to compare their benchmark scores only to national averages and those of large peer groups, such as institutions of similar size or in a similar geographic area.

Despite warnings from CCSSE officials that its data sets were never meant to be used to generate college rankings, Carey defended the decisions to do so and to have CCSSE data count for 85 percent of a college’s ranking.

“We always equate admissions selectivity with quality,” Carey said. “Well, all community colleges have the same admissions policy, but they aren’t always as good as one another. Part of this was to find a way to talk about excellence in the sector. We’re publicizing information about best practices. We’re talking about it here, and this is an interesting and long-overdue conversation that we need to have at the federal level.”

David Leonhardt at NYT:

The college guide is part of Washington Monthly’s continuing effort to build better college rankings. The biggest flaw with the famous U.S. News & World Report ranking is that it largely rewards colleges that enroll highly qualified (and, typically, affluent) students, regardless of how much those students learn while on campus. Washington Monthly instead tries reward those colleges that do a good job educating students.

The methodology is far from perfect, because the data needed to build a really good ranking doesn’t exist. But I find Washington Monthly’s approach more interesting than virtually any other ranking out there. It relies in significant part on a comparison between a college’s actual graduation rate and the graduation rate that would be predicted by the students’ economic backgrounds. The No. 1 university this year is the University of California, San Diego, and the No. 1 liberal arts college is Morehouse, in Georgia.

The magazine has also identified the 200 colleges with the worst record of graduating students. Mr. Glastris writes:

These colleges make up 15 percent of the total and disproportionately serve working-class and minority students. They are akin to the 15 percent of high schools Barack Obama and other would-be reformers have dubbed “dropout factories” for having scandalously low graduation rates — on average about 50 percent. But the average graduation rate at the 200 “college dropout factories” is 26 percent. America’s worst colleges, in other words, are twice as bad as its worst high schools.

This is an appalling waste of human talent. The students who go to these colleges are, by and large, strivers. They are the ones who made it out of the bad high schools. When they then try to improve their lives by seeking a college degree, they are steered — via relative tuition costs and geographic convenience — toward precisely those institutions where they are most likely to fail. Lest you think the fault lies not with the colleges but with the students’ lack of academic preparedness, consider this: enroll those same students in different colleges and their chances of graduating double or even triple.

One of the highest dropout rates in the nation belongs to Chicago State University, as Ben Miller and Phuong Ly explain in one article.

Ben Miller and Phuong Ly at The Washington Monthly:

It was money—or the lack of it—that determined where Nestor Curiel chose to go to college. The third of six children in an immigrant Mexican family, Nestor grew up in Blue Island, a gritty working-class suburb near Chicago’s South Side. His father worked, and still works, two jobs—machine operator and restaurant dishwasher—and his mother makes and sells crocheted gifts. Nestor, a polite twenty-one-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, graduated from Eisenhower High School with a 3.6 GPA and dreams of becoming an engineer. (As a child he was inspired by Discovery Channel documentaries about engineering marvels, and he also enjoyed helping his dad repair automobiles on weekends.) He particularly wanted to help his parents pay off the mortgage on their weathered gray house, which is two doors down from a corner store with a large “WE ACCEPT WIC” sign in the window.

Nestor was an above-average high school student who generally made the honors list, and he was diligent in his non-school hours as well, holding down a part-time job as a busboy and line cook at the restaurant where his father worked. His ACT score was 18, equivalent to about 870 on the SAT, which wasn’t high enough to gain him admission to a selective college. (This was typical for his school—41 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black—where only 31 percent of kids meet or exceed standards on state tests, versus 76 percent for the state.) And, apart from a career fair, Eisenhower High School didn’t provide much in the way of college guidance. One time, a guest speaker had urged students to expand their horizons and apply to schools out of state, but Nestor worried about going somewhere unfamiliar. Also, if he could live at home, he would save money.

Ultimately, Nestor wound up narrowing his choices down to two nearby schools: Purdue University Calumet and Chicago State University. Each seemed to have advantages and disadvantages, but Chicago State offered one extra perk: $1,000 in scholarship money if Nestor enrolled in its pre-engineering program. That sealed the deal. The stipend, combined with federal and state grants and a private scholarship from Chicago’s George M. Pullman Educational Foundation, meant that Nestor could get a college education with most of his expenses paid.

With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, Nestor wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,” he says.

Several students he knew dropped out, but Nestor stayed. “I wasn’t going to give them my money and let them kick me out,” he says. For the next two years, Nestor encountered a ceaseless array of impediments to getting through school. When he wanted to get a tutor, his advisers couldn’t offer any advice about who might be available. When he visited the financial aid office to clear up what seemed like a simple clerical error depriving him of a state grant, the office told him—untruthfully, as it turned out—that getting such grant money would disqualify him from getting any scholarship money from the Pullman Foundation. (By the time the situation was straightened out, the first semester of his sophomore year was nearly over, and the financial office gave Nestor only $780 of what was supposed to be a $1,200 grant, telling him that it couldn’t give him money for a semester that was ending. “It kind of felt like they were stealing from me,” he says.) Only with the help of two dedicated instructors—Shuming Zheng, an engineering professor, and Thomas Kuhn, a physics lecturer—was Nestor able to finish his pre-engineering credits as planned. Fortunately, this allowed him to transfer to a superior school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a $5,000 scholarship.

[…]

Nestor’s experience of educational incompetence at the college level isn’t just a Chicago phenomenon. Nationwide, low-income minority students are disproportionately steered toward colleges not where they’re most likely to succeed, but where they’re most likely to fail.

School reformers, including President Obama, often talk about high school “dropout factories.” These are the roughly 2,000 public high schools, about 15 percent of the total, with the nation’s highest dropout rates. The average student at these schools has about a fifty-fifty chance of graduating, according to the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. But the term “dropout factory” is also applicable to colleges. The Washington Monthly and Education Sector, an independent think tank, looked at the 15 percent of colleges and universities with the worst graduation records—about 200 schools in all—and found that the graduation rate at these schools is 26 percent. (See the table at left for a listing of the fifty colleges and universities with the worst graduation rates.) America’s “college dropout factories,” in other words, are twice as bad at graduating their students as the worst high schools are at graduating theirs.

Nearly everyone considers it scandalous when poor kids are shunted into lousy high schools with low graduation rates, and we have no problem naming and shaming those schools. Bad primary and secondary schools are frequently the subject of front-page newspaper investigations and the backdrop for speeches by reformist mayors and school district chiefs. But bad colleges are spared such scrutiny. This indifference is inexcusable now that a postsecondary credential has become virtually indispensable to anyone hoping to lead a middle-class life. If we want better outcomes in higher education, we need to hold dropout factories like Chicago State accountable in the same way the Obama administration proposes to hold underperforming high schools accountable: transform them—or shut them down.

When one examines the schools on the list of college dropout factories—the worst being Southern University at New Orleans, with a 5 percent graduation rate—one thing that stands out is their diversity. Geographically, they are all over the map. From New York to Florida to Alaska—few regions of the United States are spared a local dropout factory. Some, like Chicago State, the University of the District of Columbia, and Houston’s Texas Southern University, are located in big cities; others, like Sul Ross State University and Heritage University, are in small towns and rural areas. Nor is there a bias toward public or private institutions: it’s split fairly evenly, although the public colleges, which are generally bigger, tend to account for greater numbers of dropouts. Some are heavily weighted toward certain minority groups—historically black colleges, for instance, and tribal colleges. Others, like Idaho State, are 80 percent white and do just as poorly. Some of the schools are religious—like Jarvis Christian College, with a 90 percent attrition rate. Most are just seemingly ordinary schools that mostly fly beneath the radar of the national press.

But there are also similarities. As a percentage of their student bodies, these college dropout factories enroll twice as many part-time students, nearly twice as many from low-income families, and around 50 percent more blacks and Hispanics than the average American college or university. They mainly serve local communities, admit most of their applicants, and have much less money than colleges that are higher in prestige. Most upper-middle-class parents would never send their kids to these schools—nor have they generally even heard of them. Not surprisingly, the worst of the dropout factories are allowed to roll along in dysfunction, year after year.

Ben Miller at The Quick and The Ed:

In an article for the Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide, my co-author, Phuong Ly, and I show how legions of low-income and minority students find themselves steered precisely toward the colleges where they’re most likely to fail–these higher education dropout factories. These schools are enormous wastes of human talent, a fact that’s even sadder when you consider that they are most often the low-income students who beat the odds to graduate from lousy high schools.

It’s easy to shift some of the blame for this problem to the students. But that would be a mistake–data show that similarly talented individuals who go elsewhere have a much better chance of succeeding. An institution with a graduation rate of 13 percent, 19 percent, 25 percent, is doing a service to no one and it’s time to seriously think about reforming or even maybe shutting down some of these dropout factories.

To read more about Nestor, see the names of the 50 worst dropout factories, and learn more about what can be done to stop places like Chicago State, go ahead and read the whole thing.

Daniel Luzer at The Washington Monthly:

Welcome to today’s increasingly elite higher education system, where lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loads have become the norm. In dogged competition for affluent, high-scoring students, today’s second-tier colleges aim to achieve higher prestige by aping the superficial characteristics of America’s traditionally elite schools. Indeed, there are few alternatives for ambitious administrators. “If you want to rise, you try to do the things that make you look like Harvard,” says David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s hard to take a different path.”

To be sure, there was more to GW’s transformation than just a tuition hike and a campus makeover. The administration also engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign, smartly selling GW’s location in the heart of the nation’s capital as a precious asset. (A full-page advertisement in Foreign Affairs features a map of downtown Washington with GW highlighted. Also lit up are the IMF, the World Bank, the White House, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve Bank, the State Department, and the Kennedy Center. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” it says.)

[…]

Many GW students come from families that can’t afford high tuition. As a result, students borrow—a lot. The average borrower leaves Foggy Bottom with $31,299 worth of debt, among the highest levels in the country. That’s thousands more than the average at nearby Georgetown. Some students, like Greg Godfrey, graduate owing $100,000 or more. The son of a Cleveland single mother, Godfrey spent years living hand to mouth after graduating with a business degree in 2006, and still owes more than $75,000. “You just don’t know what you’re doing when you sign up for this stuff,” Godfrey says.

Nor is it clear that Godfrey and his fellow students got a great long-term investment in return. According to People Capital, an organization that tracks earning potential, a typical GW student (political science major, with average GW SAT scores and a 3.0 college GPA) would have almost exactly the same career earning potential if he attended significantly lower-debt schools like the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland.

If GW puts many of its students in a financially precarious situation, it’s worth noting that the school itself shares much the same plight. Like a recent graduate with a crushing loan, GW operates on the fiscal equivalent of paycheck to paycheck, covering nearly 80 percent of annual expenses from tuition revenue—much higher than the 40 percent average among private national research universities. The university generates little revenue from its endowment, and prospects of improving the situation are bleak: only 11 percent of alumni donate, compared to the average among similar universities in the 50 percent range.

Godfrey, for one, doesn’t plan to donate to his alma mater anytime soon. While he’s now making a decent salary—he recently obtained a job at World Wrestling Entertainment working on digital media products—he still pays some $700 a month to service the loans he accumulated studying at GW. “I mean, maybe if I made like $3 million a year I’d give something to GW,” Godfrey jokes.

Meanwhile, despite the high tuition, GW’s assault on the upper reaches of higher education status has stalled: the university made it all the way to fifty-first place on the U.S. News list in 2004, just short of tier one, but has fallen back a few spots since. GW seems to have found the upper limits of arriviste institution building in higher education. Other striving campuses, including Boston University, Drexel, and Northeastern, have ended up in similar circumstances. The wrappings have become fancier than ever, but the product inside tastes pretty much the same.

The GW institutional model—embracing high tuition, excessive construction projects, and massive undergraduate debt—has become the dominant one in higher education, and every university president seems to want to be Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. American University, for instance, another second-tier school just four and a half miles from GW, does exactly the same things GW does, only more so. The average borrower leaves American about $41,000 in debt. Some 84 percent of American’s operating budget is funded by undergraduate tuition. A whole host of second-tier national universities operate in the same manner: they spend on the things that U.S. News measures, and they pay for them with practices that U.S. News doesn’t care about, like student loans.

Will at The League:

I think there are two things at work here. As the authors note, it’s extremely difficult for rising high school seniors to make fine grain distinctions between elite universities. Fancy buildings and impressive-looking architecture are undoubtedly useful tools for wooing would-be undergrads.

But I also think that this is a consequence of students viewing college as something to be experienced rather than the more traditional, achievement-oriented process. Commentators who take on the “college as a life experience” approach to higher education tend to complain about partying, sports culture, and Greek life. And fair enough – none of these activities are really integral to the core educational mission of colleges and universities. But the highbrow equivalent of tailgating and keg stands is going to a college that prizes impressive facilities and mindless credentialism over academics, which is exactly the demographic GW  seems to be after. Would GW’s prestige-driven strategy work without a pool of students (and parents) eager to attend an institution whose core appeal consists of networking opportunities and squash (“A GW athletic director explained to the Washington Post that the whole point of the GW squash program was to attract students who wanted to attend an Ivy League college and couldn’t get in.”)? I think not, which is why the problems of higher education are more deeply-rooted than a few cynical administrators.

Reihan Salam:

Now, Luzer is doing middle-class parents a service by puncturing some of the pretensions that surround a university like GW. Yet given the growth in the number of upper-middle-class households, it’s hardly surprising that we’d see positional competition in this space. Of course a handful of enterprising schools would try to increase their prestige and engage in high-priced empire-building.

What’s more depressing, as Luzer notes, are the heavy debt loads taken on by students from middle and working class households:

Many GW students come from families that can’t afford high tuition. As a result, students borrow—a lot. The average borrower leaves Foggy Bottom with $31,299 worth of debt, among the highest levels in the country. That’s thousands more than the average at nearby Georgetown. Some students, like Greg Godfrey, graduate owing $100,000 or more. The son of a Cleveland single mother, Godfrey spent years living hand to mouth after graduating with a business degree in 2006, and still owes more than $75,000. “You just don’t know what you’re doing when you sign up for this stuff,” Godfrey says.

I still wonder if we should fret about the GWs of the world. After acknowledging that the quality of a GW education might one day catch up to the school’s ambitions, Luzer follows with the most biting line of the piece:

But it seems just as likely that GW could turn out to be one more overleveraged artifact of our gilded age.

Ouch. And the conclusion also packs a punch:

But above all, GW seems vulnerable to a potential change in the way we thinkabout higher education. What if we actually started measuring how much students learn at their colleges and universities? How would that change the competition among institutions? Would the schools with the blue-chip price tags and high average debt loads fall from the top ranks? Would it spell an end to the era in which a forbidding set of entrance standards and a few stone facades are enough to tell us that a school is doing a great job? Let’s hope so. It would be great if moreuniversities competed to be excellent. What we have now is schools that spend a lot of money—students’ money, taxpayers’ money—merely to look that way.

The future Luzer outlines is obviously appealing. The thought that kept crossing my mind while reading the piece was that our tax dollars massively subsidize Trachtenberg’s empire-building, and that doesn’t seem like a very sound way to distribute what is essentially a large public investment.

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