What's a "top college"?

August 26, 2010

Maybe it’s because I need easily digestible print reading for my train commute. Maybe it’s my inevitable post-20s loss of hipster cred. Whatever the reason, I seem to be reading a lot less of the humor writing at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a lot more of Joel Stein’s Time column.

I don’t often agree with Stein’s take on the world, but I enjoy his breezy prose and his punchlines, equal parts smart-aleck and goofball. He took some heat for a July column that came off as xenophobic, but it’s this week’s entry that has me irked. Stein is defending elitism, specifically the Ivy-to-power-elite track that dominates the resumés of most big-time journalists and the people they cover. He begins:

I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.

He’s being funny, of course, in an I-actually-mean-this-but-want-to-play-it-as-a-joke kind of way. He goes on to criticize the “cancer” of anti-elitism and the culture’s affection for inclusive mediocrity. Yeah, yeah. We all saw The Incredibles, which at least was more entertaining than Stein at his best, to say nothing of Stein here.

The whole piece is irritating, but I’ll focus on “I went to a better college than you did.” That’s probably true—I liked Wheaton well enough, but unlike some chapel speakers, I’m not eager to argue that it’s superior to Stanford, Stein’s alma mater. But Stein is assuming a lot in that statement, namely that the concept of a “better college” is built around solid evidence and consensus.

He takes this for granted, anticipating many objections to his argument but not this one: our American system of understanding which schools are the best is based largely on two mutually reinforcing factors—the opinions of the elites who go to these schools and the rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report.

U.S. News's main considerations include the assessments of peer administrators, the proportion of applicants accepted, per-student spending and alumni giving rate. If you think this sounds like an easily manipulated formula for self-perpetuating elitism, education expert Kevin Carey agrees.

While Carey and others were writing their white papers, the Washington Monthly began in 2006 publishing an alternative set of annual college rankings—a great example of hybrid advocacy/service journalism. Here are the magazine’s three criteria:

  • community service: participation in ROTC, alumni in the Peace Corps, work-study money channeled toward service projects
  • research: production of research in the sciences and humanities
  • social mobility: the matriculation and graduation of lower-income students

In short, schools are ranked as to how well they promote the common good. The fact that this sounds radical is part of the problem.

WaMo’s new rankings are out, and Stanford ranks fourth among national universities—but it’s the only school to crack each publication’s top five. Yes, Stein went to a great school by any standard; but there are multiple standards with very different aims and results. It’s a shame that for many, “top school” is an uncritical euphemism for “school that trades in carefully preserved elitism.” Good for the Washington Monthly for working to correct this.


Amy Day said...

Amy Day said...

I think you are getting into some tricky territory, as quick as I am to jump on an idealist platform, you have to believe that there is a very strong anti-intellectual portion of the population who actually percieves the holding of an advanced degree as evidence that you should NOT listen to the person.
As a lower income college student, it was essential to go to the best graduate school to succeed, and even though I started at a mid-level state school for free, figured out pretty quickly that that was not going to help me and worked to improve until I could attend US NEw's #3 school in my field. The education itself was head and shoulders above the previous schools, and I met the real movers and shakers in my field. It was a BETTER education. It also seems to me that the current system of rank-based credentialing is unlikely to change soon, my ability to make an actual impact on the world and quickly is in a large part due to the status of my school's ranking. Had I graduated from the previous school, I would likely spend my entire career trying in vain to get my work seen and make a difference and have little impact. The focus should perhaps be instead on continuing to improve public education and discrimination in testing and application procedures to secure lower income and socially minded students in the schools with the reputations to take them to the top in those fields.

Steve Thorngate said... A

Steve Thorngate said...

A good point, Amy. I think there's really two questions here:

- Should we change the way we, collectively, tend to define what makes a good school.
- In the meantime, should people try to get into the schools currently perceived as best.

It may depend on your field, but it seems like the answer to the second question is generally yes regardless of the first--it's the classic tension between systemic change and individual gain, like how it's one thing to support public schools (ie, elementary and high schools) in theory and another to send your kids there.

That aside, clearly plenty of the schools that get high marks from US News are giving people a great education. The point isn't that they're always wrong. And when it comes to lower-income students being able to attend and graduate and being exposed to high-level work in their field, one of WaMo's three criteria addresses this directly and the other two do so indirectly.

Last point is that all this is probably somewhat more relevant to undergraduate studies than graduate, as the former tends to be less (though certainly not 100 percent less) about making the right professional connections.

Phil said... Wow, I can't

Phil said...

Wow, I can't believe this is really a debate. I suppose elitism is important and that class differences somehow define us(?) but it boggles my mind to see comments like Amy's. Earning a BS as well as a Doctorate from a "mid-level" state school took me out of the lower middle class and planted me firmly in the upper middle. If I had chosen to continue my education further or had chosen to work 60-70 hours a week as opposed to raising a family, I could have made even more money and "graduated" up to the next class.

It seems we so often concentrate on the things that are less important, such as how much money I can make if I graduate from this or that college. I do not think that the private colleges gave their students a better education than the one I received and I find the elitism expressed in this comment to be the antithesis of what this site and others like it stand for.

Anonymous said... In defense

Anonymous said...

In defense of Amy: she sees the world as it truly is. In these times, you can get stuck in the insecure 90%, or you can do what it takes to get to the more secure 10%. The choice of college has some influence in which group you're in. This may not be idealistic but it is true.

Anonymous said... I think

Anonymous said...

I think these kinds of debates are remarkably tone deaf. In a country where only 25% of the population holds a bachelor's degree, the real divide is not between Harvard and Penn State; it is between college and no college. Only isolated elites who like to obsesses over their own credentials could ever think otherwise.

Steve Thorngate said... Anon:

Steve Thorngate said...

Anon: To reiterate, part of the point of the WaMo rankings, and part of my point in posting about them, is the belief that our notion of a "good" college ought to take into account how well it serves lower-income students, including whether it serves them at all.