• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


An Alternative Ranking

Supplementing the valuable Washington Monthly ratings.

August 31, 2021

The new Washington Monthly rankings of (four-year) colleges and universities came out this week, and they are vastly better than those other rankings we all know. Check them out if you haven’t already. Rather than rewarding colleges for exclusivity, reputation and accumulated assets, Washington Monthly rewards them for graduating low-income students, generating research and producing civically involved students.

In other words, it sets out to reward desired behaviors, rather than to codify existing biases. It strikes me as an excellent start.

It got me thinking about other criteria I’d add, if asked. I’d start with transfer friendliness.

That may sound abstract, but it’s measurable in straightforward ways. What percentage of transfer credits is accepted and actually applied toward degrees? (In other words, don’t count “free electives.”) Does the college have transfer scholarships? Does it have dedicated transfer counseling? What’s the graduation rate of students who transfer in? How do those students do in the job market 10 years later? Does the college discriminate against dual-enrollment credits, or does it grant them equal standing?

Ranking colleges and universities according to their transfer friendliness would incentivize good behavior. It would help shift the burden of proof for acceptance of credits from yes to no, which is where it belongs. It would also recognize that most college students in the U.S. attend more than one institution before they graduate; at this point, the students measured by the classic IPEDS metric -- first-time, full-time, degree-seeking -- are the exceptions, but we still base most measures on them.

Right now it’s essentially impossible to get reliable data in public about the transferability of credits within majors. (Some states, including my own, require acceptance of gen ed credits as a bloc, which is helpful. But it exempts courses in the major. And even then, it only applies to public colleges.) Decisions are often only rendered after a student has committed to attending, which would be remarkable in almost any other context. It’s extremely difficult for students to comparison shop. That makes meaningful competition effectively impossible.

If rankings reward exclusivity and ignore transfer friendliness, then it’s unsurprising that some well-known places engage in bad behavior around transfer. There’s very little penalty for doing so. Highlighting those who engage in good behavior is a logical place to start; if their absence from the list constitutes shaming by omission, well, so it goes.

Tracking the outcomes of transfer might seem obvious or pedestrian, but it would be a radical change from current practice. For example, right now, transfer students don’t count in the receiving college’s graduation rate. What if they did? They are graduates, after all.

Financial aid for transfer students is often neglected. How does it compare to the aid offered to first-time students? This should be straightforward enough to quantify, though right now, almost nobody does.

Finally, although Washington Monthly contains a piece rightly praising dual enrollment, it doesn’t acknowledge that credits earned through dual enrollment are often disqualified. That tends to put a cap on the usefulness of an approach that has shown positive results otherwise. Why not shine a light on the schools that are more friendly to dual-enrollment credits? Again, if schools missing from that list feel shamed by omission, they know what to do.

Wise and worldly readers, what criteria would you suggest?


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