• 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.


Thoughts on the Washington Monthly College Guide

Different audiences.


August 28, 2018

When I taught writing, I told the students that they needed to consider the intended audience. Were they writing for children, for educated adults, or for specialists in a field? Factors like those would affect the choices a good writer would make.  

That wasn’t how I was taught, but I think it holds up. It moves away from the idea that there’s an objectively correct way to write, and towards the idea that writing takes place in (and assumes) a context. Rather than pure self-expression or channeling of a muse, the point is to communicate to a reader.

I thought about that in looking at Washington Monthly’s latest college guide. It’s an alternative to the US News rankings. The US News rankings tend to reward wealth, reputation, and exclusivity, as opposed to performance with the students they actually get. (Judging by the number of stories about colleges and graduate programs sending US News false data, the rankings must carry great weight.)  The Washington Monthly rankings look instead at indicators like performance gaps between students on Pell grants and students who aren’t; levels of community involvement; graduation rates; and the upward mobility of graduates. Simply admitting a bunch of rich kids won’t cut it.

As a full-time educator and part-time policy wonk, I get the appeal. A college whose students consistently outperform what their demographics would have predicted is doing something right.  As a taxpayer and a citizen, I’m more inclined to want to support colleges that do right by a broad swath of students than to support a bunch of semi-talented and overentitled rich kids. 

As a community college person, I was a little annoyed at the complete disregard of transfer, but that’s an asterisk.  That’s an easy fix for a subsequent year, should they so choose.

As a parent, though, I’m not taken with it. The Boy is starting his senior year of high school next week, so we’re in the thick of the college search.  (He has already announced that living at home, and especially attending a school where his Dad works, is entirely out of the question.  Fair enough.) That means looking at program offerings and location, but also at quality, both real (as far as can be determined) and perceived.  He wants to go someplace “good,” and I want him to have that opportunity.

The US News rankings are aimed at parents and students.  That’s where they get their power. Ambitious students want to know that they’re picking places that will pay off.  The rankings are deeply flawed in all sorts of ways with which most of us are familiar, but they’re accessible. And they address at least some of the questions that parents and students have.  To the extent that rankings drive applications and/or enrollments, they matter to institutions. Their weight comes through their function as a consumer guide.

The Washington Monthly rankings, noble as they are, are nearly useless as a consumer guide.  Part of that is basic formatting. For example, to look for a particular college, you first have to guess which category it’s in.  There’s no “search” box that includes the various categories. Is Montclair State under “regional,” “Master’s,” “liberal arts,” or “best bang for the buck?”  The only way to know is to chug through each category and keep entering until it pops up. That assumes a lot about the reader.

It also assumes that, say, Pell success gaps are as important as external reputation.  And that may be true at a policy level. But as the parent of a non-Pell student, it’s not really relevant.  From a shopper’s perspective, I’m concerned about what the school will do for my kid. Many of the factors WM considers don’t tell me that. 

For example, compare a school that gets above-average results with average students, to one that gets excellent results with excellent students.  The first one gets props for punching above its weight, but a student will get a better education at the second. The first speaks to policy, the second to shopping.  Put differently, the first speaks to wonks, and the second to parents. And there are a lot more parents than there are wonks.

The difference matters because what makes US News so powerful is precisely its attention to parents and applicants.  Its oversimplifications make it accessible, which gives it power. WM offers a much more ethically informed take, but at the cost of usefulness, at least to people outside of policy wonk circles.

“Best Bang for the Buck” comes closer to a parental perspective, but there, too, it makes a common and deeply frustrating category mistake.  For public universities, it assumes in-state tuition. But that’s only true if you’re in-state. Okay, the University of Michigan provides an excellent value to Michigan residents.  That’s great. But is it still an excellent value for people paying out-of-state tuition? The rankings don’t say. Given that most of us are non-residents of more places than we’re residents of, that seems like a major omission.  It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard to offer two rankings for each public institution, reflecting in-state and out-of-state, respectively. That’s the sort of thing a wonk might miss, but a parent will pick up on right away.

I offer these thoughts in hopes of helping WM to improve.  The flaws in the US News rankings are well-known, and having people who actually understand both policy and education weigh in makes sense.  But don’t forget the reader. US News, for all of its flaws, got the reader right. If you don’t do that, the piece doesn’t work, no matter how well-intended it is.

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Matt Reed

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