You’ve got the 2007 college guide, where they use their own ranking system to create a list of the best colleges.
We use three criteria that we believe best measure the impact schools have on the country. The first is social mobility: does the school do a good job recruiting and graduating poorer students? The second is research: is the school supporting the scientific and humanistic study that is key to our national strength, by producing PhDs and winning research grants? And the third is service: how effectively does the school foster an ethic of giving back to the country, either through military or civilian service? (For further details, see “A Note on Methodology”)
The sleazy higher education lobby.
In 2003, Ted Kennedy tried to nudge America’s colleges and universities toward changing two of the least defensible practices in the modern admissions process. The first is legacy preferences, in which schools heavily favor applications from the children of alumni, often ahead of students with stronger academic resumes but less-well-connected parents. The second practice, early decision, where schools make it easier for prospective students to get admitted if they’ll commit to attending at the time they apply, has a similar effect, since wealthier candidates don’t need to compare financial aid packages and can therefore more easily commit to a school early. Taken together, the two practices fly in the face of the ideal of American meritocracy, and reduce the opportunities for young people of more modest backgrounds to go to selective colleges.
Under Kennedy’s proposal, schools that used both tools and also graduated students of color at a disproportionately low rate—at the time, that meant eighty-seven schools, including five Ivies—would be required to try to boost that rate, and would receive federal money to do so. If they failed, the schools would be required to give up legacy preferences or early decision, or else forgo other forms of federal aid.
But before Kennedy’s proposal could even be formally introduced, One Dupont Circle weighed in. That’s the address of the marble-and-glass office building that serves as the de facto headquarters for the array of groups representing the organized interests of America’s colleges and universities. Prominently located in a fashionable D.C. neighborhood that’s home to many of the better-funded nonprofits, One Dupont (or the “National Center for Higher Education,” as its awning appropriately proclaims) is owned by the largest and most powerful of the higher ed associations, the American Council on Education. In order to facilitate coordination of policy and strategy, ACE leases the rest of the space, at below-market rates, exclusively to other higher ed groups (from the National Association of College and University Attorneys to the American College Personnel Association). That sense of cohesion tends to come through in the lobby’s work: one higher ed expert I spoke to called One Dupont “a building that speaks, like the White House.”
When the denizens of One Dupont learned of the Kennedy proposal, they pulled out all the stops to fight it. Legacy preferences are a key way for many colleges to maintain favor with deep-pocketed alumni, and early decision allows them to manage the admissions process with more predictability, and to lock in certain coveted applicants—often wealthy athletic recruits, who play sports like squash and lacrosse and whose parents can be expected to pay full price.
Higher ed lobbyists quickly mobilized their member colleges, encouraging them to go directly to senators on the key committee. Publicly, the lobby stressed the effect the measure would have on small religious institutions and historically black colleges, some of which, they claimed, depend for their existence on using the admissions process to maintain alumni loyalty. But in reality, say Hill staffers who worked on the issue, it was the elite New England private colleges and universities, appealing directly to their home-state senators Kennedy and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who applied particularly effective behind-the-scenes pressure. When Dodd began to waver, Kennedy was forced to back off, and the two instead proposed a largely toothless alternative that merely required colleges to report on the number, socioeconomic status, and race of students who were relatives of alumni or were admitted through early decision. It involved no penalties of any kind. Yet ultimately, under pressure from One Dupont, even this measure was never brought up for a vote.
Finally, a fascinating bit about how community colleges are often better than four years.
Conventional wisdom assumes that if you hold schools with low-income students to high standards, graduation rates will plummet. In fact, our list indicates that the opposite may be the case. CCSSE research has found that the level of academic challenge is positively linked with graduation rates. Indeed, the average graduation rate of colleges on our list is almost 50 percent higher than the national average for community colleges. Undergraduates who are taught well are more likely to succeed and ultimately complete their degree, meaning that the more colleges ask from their students, the more they get back. This suggests that many students aren’t dropping out because colleges are keeping their standards appropriately high—they’re dropping out because the standards are inappropriately low.
What, then, are the conclusions to be drawn from our list? For community colleges, the main one is this: No more excuses. It’s just not very credible to blame subpar performance on funding levels or student demographics when schools like Hazard and Atlanta Technical are performing so well. For four-year universities, the conclusion is even tougher: They ought to be ashamed of themselves. Despite all their advantages—lavish campuses, brilliant scholars, social networks that no community college can match—the quality of the teaching at four-year institutions is less rigorous and less helpful than that found at the community colleges on our list. This is a stunning indictment of the extent to which teaching at many of America’s “best” universities has been neglected.