Thursday, September 3, 2009

Poor Guidance

Washington Monthly magazine has released their
2009 college guide. Meant as an alternative to the US News & World Report college issue, the WaMo list is based on totally different criteria, emphasizing colleges' "contributions to society" as opposed to straight academic performance or endowment size. For someone used to the typical Ivy League dominance, this list is rather, er, different.

I have a major problem with WaMo's rankings but, before I get into things, I just want to state up front that I am not, in any way, putting US News on a pedestal. There's no question that the US News rankings aren't perfect. Seeing my alma mater jump into the top 10 because of one huge donation made it all too clear that the rankings are too heavily influenced by endowments and donations. It's an imperfect system, but as an approximation, it's not bad.

On the other hand, the WaMo rankings seemed to come completely out of left field. South Carolina State University at number 6??? I've never even heard of that school. Thanks to a combination of a high ROTC participation and significant gap between expected and actual graduation rates (45% vs 22%!!) SCSU pulls in higher than all eight Ivy League universities. For a school with a median SAT score of about 840 (math+verbal).

I think a ranking system like this is indicative of a big problem with how we, as Americans, view higher education. Too many people, I think, view a college degree as another hoop to jump through on the way to a career, not as an education that needs to be earned. I'm a firm believer that anyone and everyone who wants a college degree should have the ability to earn one, but only if they have the ability to learn and study at a high enough level. The system we have now, where for-profit degree mills and underfunded, underacheiving institutions will accept anyone with a pulse, both waters down the meaning of a college degree, and widens the income gap between those who did and did not go to college.

Ranking a school like SCSU in the top 10, I think, exacerbates these problems. Rewarding an institution that spends a whopping $4 million per year on research, has zero faculty who are members of national academies, and graduates less than 50% of its students, is a huge mistake. A school like this shouldn't be lauded. It should be condemned. A college like SCSU isn't educating and preparing its students to become the leaders and intellectuals of tomorrow. It's taking their money for 4 years and then giving them a piece of paper. Ranking SCSU as a top-10 institution is an insult to the students and graduate at the true top universities who work long and hard to earn their degrees, and equally to the students at places like SCSU who are duped into thinking that, by purchasing a piece of paper that says "college degree" on it, their paths to success are guaranteed.

I know this post is pretty harsh, and I'm not trying to demean the students of SCSU. I'm sure many of them are intelligent, hard working, and have earned every ounce of pride and prestige that comes with a college degree. What angers me is that an institution that apparently spends the bare minimum on both research and faculty is being rewarded, and that WaMo is enabling that institution through a ranking system based on the nebulous concept of "contributions to society." Any high school student who applies to SCSU with the expectation that they will get either a top-notch education or a head-start on their career based on these WaMo rankings is making a huge mistake.

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