New College Rankings Are Out—Including Some That Are Actually Useful

This year a magazine has begun ranking colleges on vocational-training effectiveness. (The Washington Monthly)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As a one-time staff editor of The Washington Monthly magazine, I am biased in favor of that plucky enterprise and its approach to the world.

As a one-time chief editor of  US News & World Report, I am all too aware of the fatuousness imperfections of its college-ranking system. Being a pioneer in ranking has been the economic salvation of US News.  But the premise that vastly different institutions can be precisely ranked on overall quality has its obvious limits. What are the "best" ten lines of work, ranked one through ten, for your child to aspire to? What are the "best" twenty-five cities to live in -- or pieces of music to listen to, or food to eat? Or people to marry? The only sane answer is, "it depends," which is the answer when it comes to colleges and universities too.
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As it happens, I wrote those two preceding paragraphs nine full years ago, during the 2009 version of “college ranking week” for a number of national magazines.

Back in the early 1980s, the number of prominent magazines doing the rankings was one: US News itself. You can read the background of how this became a business franchise for US News (which survives now mainly as a rankings organization), and why their decade-long near monopoly in rankings was so controversial, here in Slate back in 1999; here again one year later in Slate;  here at about the same time in The Washington Monthly; here in 2001 in the University of Chicago magazine; in The Atlantic in 2013 from John Tierney and two years later from Gillian White; and here in 2017 from Politico. (You’ll also see linked rebuttals from USN at many of those places, and for instance here.) And the Atlantic has some new features on the cost of education, out today: by Alia Wong and Amanda Ripley.

The gist of the early critiques, beyond (serious) disputes about factors that were included and excluded, and the very idea that institutions as different as the University of Minnesota and Pomona could be ranked on a precise linear scale, involved the monoculture dominance of this single ranking system. As you might put it, and in fact as I put it nine years ago:

The practical solution to ranking mania is not to try to eliminate them -- it's too late -- but instead to crowd the field so that no one "Best Colleges" list has disproportionate influence.

Toward that end, The Washington Monthly's latest iteration of its college rankings is valuable simply for existing and adding diversity to the ranking field. It's more valuable than that, because of the way it carries through its analysis about the traits we really should value in universities, plus letting people tailor their own rankings based on the qualities that matter most to them.

Three years ago in The Atlantic, Alia Wong explained how far the healthy proliferation of rankings had spread—again, at least partly offsetting the distortions of any one scale—and Li Zhou surveyed them and noted how different their judgments of “best college” were. Stanford was on top on one scale, Washington and Lee on another, CalTech on another, UC Irvine on yet one more.

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This is all prelude to this year’s cycle, in which the US News rankings are more or less what they have traditionally been, and The Washington Monthly extends its practice of ranking schools not just on strictly “academic” metrics but on their broader effect on the nation. As Kevin Carey says in an introduction to this year’s TWM college edition:

Thirteen years ago, the Washington Monthly set out to solve a problem. The higher education market was dominated by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which reward wealth, fame, and exclusivity. College leaders responded to the temptation of better U.S. News scores by raising prices, chasing status, and marketing themselves to the children of privilege.

We thought the nation needed exactly the opposite: smart, well-run colleges that enrolled students from all walks of life and helped them earn a high-quality diploma at an affordable price. Colleges that instilled a sense of service and public obligation while producing groundbreaking research.

So we decided to do something about it and create our own ranking—not based on what colleges do for themselves, but on what they do for their country. After all, everyone benefits when colleges push the boundaries of scientific discovery and provide paths to opportunity for the next generation of low-income students. And everyone pays for college, through taxes and other forms of public support.

This year’s innovation is to provide—not in place of, but in addition to, the previous ranking metrics—a guide to how colleges compare on vocational certificates. Nursing, auto-engine or airplane-engine technicians, welding and other (good-paying) skilled-trade jobs—this kind of training has traditionally been disdained by “ambitious” institutions and students.

But as TWM’s editor Paul Glastris lays out in this article, jobs in this category are essential to American business resilience and, more important, to greater economic opportunity and justice. As I’ve argued in The Atlantic — in this piece about “career technical” education in Georgia, and this one about maker-movement manufacturing startups in Kentucky, and this overview article this past May--and in the new book I wrote with my wife, Deb Fallows, “career technical education” may be this era’s most important part of the U.S. schooling system.

The rationale is similar to what Audrey M. Hutchinson, of the National League of Cities, laid out in this essay, “Community Colleges Will Shape the Workforce of the Future.” I won’t belabor a case you can read elsewhere (including at many of these links), but the essential point is: since the era’s main economic problems are inequality, disruption, and blocked opportunity, institutions that can match people with the era’s fastest-growing skilled jobs are newly important.

Deb and I will have more in this space about community colleges, vocational certificates, career-technical programs in high schools, and other aspects of this valuable next wave in American education. For now, please check out TWM and its steadily expanding approach to rankings.