Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"What Would Help?"

Every so often, I have one of those conversations in which an initial misunderstanding inadvertently lays the groundwork for a good exchange.  That happened this week with Paul Glastris, the editor of Washington Monthly, who called to take issue with my critique of WM’s latest college rankings issue.

WM’s rankings are intended as a sort of rebuttal to the US News rankings.  The US News rankings reward wealth and prestige, so they tend to reinforce existing hierarchies.  As Glastris put it, “the hierarchy within the profession of higher education is not aligned with the public interest.”  So instead of looking at “inputs,” WM tends to focus on student outcomes, with a special focus on lower-income students.

My critique was that the US News rankings gain their power through their broad appeal to a constituency of parents and prospective students; the sheer size of the constituency, and the subsequent effects on enrollments, gives it influence.  For all of its well-known flaws, it carries weight. That’s why so many colleges cheat on it by supplying false information. The WM rankings, by contrast, have almost no discernible constituency. They really aren’t useful from a comparison-shopping perspective, and they’re too inside-baseball for many policymakers.  They might appeal to a thin slice of equality-minded higher ed nerds (hi!), but there aren’t as many of us as one might like, and our political clout is modest at best.

In other words, the critique was based on broad agreement with the goals of the WM piece.  It was largely tactical. A policy argument without a constituency is unlikely to catch on.

To which Glastris asked, reasonably, what an egalitarian analysis with a constituency would look like.  What would help? So, what would help?

It’s a fair question, so I’ll put it to my wise and worldly readers, and then share a few thoughts.

He conceded a couple of suggestions.  A single search bar in which you could enter the name of a school, without first specifying a category, would help.  A category specific to HBCU’s, and another specific to women’s colleges, would make sense. He agreed that it would be nice to be able to rank public universities on cost to students for out-of-state students, but the data aren’t available for that.  (For example: is the University of Michigan still a good deal if you’re paying out-of-state tuition?) And the section on community colleges should include degrees, not just certificates. So that ground is covered.

I’m thinking that starting with exceptions might make sense.  For instance, their list of top national universities starts with Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.  That’s hardly revelatory. But a list of “Top Surprises” or “Most Underrated” could be of interest to parents and prospective students, and could make some political points at the same time.  

Financial aid remains a black box.  I eat, sleep, and breathe higher ed, and the best advice I could give my son was to apply to a bunch of places and see who gives him the best offer.  But there is some comparability. For example, most colleges don’t commit to meeting full need. They could easily be ranked by how much “gapping” they do, with less being better.  And don’t count loans as aid.

Schools with more economically diverse student bodies that have tremendous success getting students into law school or med school would be good to know.  It’s one thing to get students through your own program; that can happen in ways legitimate or illegitimate. But if they continue to do well at the next level, that’s a good sign that something is going very right.  That’s yet another argument for tracking upward transfers from community colleges, of course, but it’s also an argument for finding the affordable schools that make good “feeders” for law, med, or grad schools.

That’s separate from salary data, since students in school don’t usually earn much yet.  But it would be helpful to know. The Boy wants to be a doctor; if there were good information on the most affordable and successful feeder colleges for med school, I’d want to see it.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Given the default assumption that resources correlate with results, the places that get better-than-expected results with fewer resources probably have something to teach us.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?  If you wanted to generate comparative college data that would appeal to enough people to matter, and that wouldn’t just reward the usual suspects, what would help?