Rating America's Colleges

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Introduction

What is wrong with our country’s colleges? Which ones are getting it right?

Questions like these affect more Americans now than ever. The percentage of young people enrolling in college has jumped significantly in our lifetime, rising from 24 percent as recently as 1973 to 39.6 percent in 2008.1 Since the bachelor’s degree has become a kind of union card required of aspirants to entry-level jobs in most industries, that percentage will only continue to rise.

So will the price of college. Tuition and fees are skyrocketing: between 1985 and 2010, college costs increased nearly 4.5 times—even when adjusted for inflation.2 But are students and their parents getting a good bang for their buck? Are the institutions of higher education really preparing students for life after school?

Not necessarily. According to education scholars Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the “dissatisfaction of corporate leaders in the private sector with the quality of U.S. undergraduate education has . . . become palpable.” In their 2011 study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Arum and Roksa cite research showing that “more than 90 percent of employers rate written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving as ‘very important’ for the job success of new labor market entrants.” However, only “16 percent [of applicants] excel in written communication and 28 percent in critical thinking/problem solving.”3

Meanwhile, the prospects for job seekers are bleaker than they have been in decades. At the end of 2010 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the jobless rate for college graduates was the highest in forty years.4 The job market for recent graduates is especially bad: economist Andrew Sum of Northeastern University shows that 25.6 percent of college grads under the age of twenty-five are out of work, and another 28.5 percent are working in jobs that do not require a college degree. 5

New degree holders face these dreary prospects at a time when the average debt of college graduates is the highest it has ever been—with no signs of slowing down. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the Class of 2011 “the most indebted ever,” with the average student debt burden for new graduates at $22,900. As the Journal noted, that is an 8 percent rise from 2010 &ldquoand, in inflation-adjusted terms, 47 percent more than a decade ago.”6

In return for taking on this burden, which can often take decades to pay off—delaying young people in buying homes, starting nest eggs, and forming families—what are students getting? Are they being challenged to stretch their cognitive abilities in different fields, so they’ll be intellectually and professionally versatile adults? Are they learning the basics of core disciplines such as American history, democratic government, English literature, and the market economy? Are they engaging with a wide range of freely expressed opinions on key ethical and political issues they will face as individuals and as citizens? Are they living in safe and sober residences where academic work is encouraged, not inhibited?

That’s what the editors of Choosing the Right College (www.CollegeGuide.org) aimed to find out—and based on our research, we have issued a ranking of Ten Exceptional Schools and Ten Train Wrecks.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization founded in 1953, has been publishing the acclaimed Choosing the Right College since 1998. In the 2012–13 edition of the book, researchers examined 140 American schools that run the educational gamut, including elite, Ivy or almost-Ivy League schools; major regional universities; venerable secular and religious liberal arts colleges; military academies; leading engineering institutes; and small, “Great Books” schools.

Our approach stands in striking contrast to that of the most popular college ranking, conducted by U.S. News and World Report. The most important criterion for that ranking is “peer assessment,” which is determined by polling provosts at other colleges and asking them to rank their competitors. In other words, it’s a beauty contest. Next comes “freshman retention and graduation rate,” which is based on statistics of dubious relevance that are easy for administrators to game—for instance, by making it really hard to flunk out. After that comes “faculty resources,” which mixes important questions, such as average class size and the use of adjuncts, with less relevant issues, such as faculty salaries. Another criterion is “student selectivity,” which rewards schools for attracting top candidates—even if they are drawn there more by a school’s inherited prestige than by its teaching. The next factor is “per-student spending,” which simply recognizes schools for being rich. Another, less important metric is “graduation rate performance,” which compares how high the school’s graduation rate this year is compared to . . . Where U.S. News editors had guessed it would be in a previous edition. Finally, the editors consider what percentage of alumni give money every year—a sensible measure, since it shows student satisfaction.


Notes

  1. “College Enrollment Hits All-Time High, Fueled by Community College Surge,” Pew Research Center, October 29, 2009.
  2. From 1985 to 2010, consumer prices rose a total of 107.5 percent, while college costs jumped more than 466 percent. See InflationData.com.
  3. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 143.
  4. Paul Davidson, “Unemployment Rate for College Grads Is Highest Since 1970,” USA Today, December 6, 2010.
  5. Catherine Rampell, “A Decade Makes All the Difference,” Economix (blog), New York Times, June 1, 2011, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/a-decade-makes-all-the-difference/#more-110837.
  6. Mark Whitehouse, “Number of the Week: Class of 2011, Most Indebted Ever,” Real Time Economics(blog), Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2011, http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/05/07/number-of-the-week-class-of-2011-most-indebted-ever/.
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