Shocking news: the new Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education college rankings say that Harvard is the best school in the United States. So does Forbes in its rankings, while US News ranks it second. Some eight schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Duke and Cal Tech) are in the top 10 in all three rankings. The top schools are like 17th century English landed aristocracy: all are old (the newest, Cal Tech, was founded over 120 years ago), with half of the top 10 in the WSJ listing beginning even before the nation in which they reside. Indeed, none of the top 50 WSJ colleges was founded after 1950. All the top 10 are rich, with multi-billion investments –some, like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, have about two million dollars of endowment for every student.
There is a monotonous stability to the rankings –some embryonic assessments in the first half of the last century all placed Harvard, Yale, and Princeton at or near the top. Indeed, college rankings dramatically demonstrate how rarely healthy and innovative Schumpeterian “creative destruction” comes to higher education. I located a 1994 Fortune Magazine with its list of 500 leading American corporations. Of the top 10 1994 companies, six have changed dramatically, now have different names, and a seventh (General Motors) has gone through bankruptcy. Only three of the top 10 in 1994 (GE, IBM and Ford) are the same companies they were in 1994. At least one of them, Ford, was on life support once in the intervening 23 years. The new corporate leaders as measured by stock valuation, Apple and Google, did not even exist a half-century ago. The top American universities resemble far more the old British aristocracy than the business institutions that ultimately provide them with most of their wealth and resources.
According to the WSJ rankings, state universities are the junior varsity of higher education —not one of them makes the top 20 (that is true for most other widely used rankings). There are only eight state schools in the top fifty (for some reason, the military academies seem to be totally excluded). I would also note that the oldest and still probably the most popular rankings, those of US News, show a considerable decline in the number of state schools at the top over time.
How did the Wall Street Journal and the British-based Times Higher Education do their rankings? They used 15 factors, heavily emphasizing outcomes (40 percent), and resources (30 percent). Another 20 percent reflects student “engagement, ” and 10 percent is a diversity component.
Let’s analyze “resources” more closely. A school that spends more on instruction per student gets higher rankings or has a higher faculty-student ratio. It does better if the faculty publishes a lot of papers in top-flight academic journals. In other words, if a school is wealthy, it is better, since rich or high tuition schools can buy faculty and even research. Quality is measured here by inputs, not outputs. If a school gives its faculty all 10 percent raises, rankings go up —but does institutional effectiveness rise?
That problem, though, is minor compared with the diversity component, rhetorically disguised as an “environmental” factor. The University of Michigan could improve its already respectable 27th placement by replacing students from Michigan by those from Iran and by replacing white students with those from presumptively better races. While I believe having students of diverse backgrounds is useful in promoting a full learning experience, there are few American schools that do not largely achieve that already (although the number of poor students at top schools is typically relatively small). The WSJ diversity component to me is not measuring quality but rather is catering to political correct racist instincts (and I bet a majority of the WSJ’s editorial board, not involved in this undertaking, would agree). Campus tolerance and support for a diversity of ideas, of course, is what is really important, and it is not considered in the rankings (although it would be difficult although not impossible to do so).
Preventing the Public From Knowing
Stealing (as many do) from Winston Churchill, college rankings are the worst way to evaluate colleges —except all others. I know, because I began and directed those of Forbes for nine years. There are two huge problems: information and varying human preferences. Universities are supposedly in the business of creating and distributing information and knowledge, but when it comes to themselves, they do everything possible to prevent the public from knowing much. Some of them fought the Department of Education from creating the College Scorecard, providing some of the data used in the WSJ rankings (and which was just updated and expanded to make it more useful). College lobbyists have successfully kept us from knowing things like how much did students learn while at school? Or, what are post-graduate earnings of all graduates (not just those taking federal student aid) by university and major field of study? The college lobby in 2008 successfully outlawed efforts to get a better student outcomes database. Politicians as diverse politically as Elizabeth Warren and Orrin Hatch have proposed a College Transparency Act to lift restrictions allowing for better consumer information.
“Variety’s the very spice of life” William Cowper opined in 1785, so the best college or university for an individual varies with personal interests, academic performance, geography, income, sometimes race or religion, accessibility to friends or relatives, etc. Published college rankings reflect some generic set of values that need to be modified to fit individual circumstances. Still, given the difficulty in getting really good objective information about colleges cheaply and quickly, published rankings serve a good purpose. Even though the criteria vary a fair amount amongst the top rankings, usually the schools considered the best are pretty similar. When I did the Forbes rankings, I would experiment with a variety of different weights on a large number of factors, but almost never could get Princeton out of the top ten. The nation could use a website with data about 10 or 15 important factors (graduation rates, earnings immediately after graduation, earnings 10 years after graduation, costs before financial aid, probability of getting financial aid, student attitudes towards instructors, etc.) that would allow people to concoct their own “do it yourself” rankings using personalized weights on the various measured factors.
Just Another Good or Service
For some reason, the WSJ rankings rekindled in my mind a recurring thought for almost six decades: why do we treat colleges different than any other good or service? Why do we subsidize them rather than taxing them? The reality, of course, is the so-called “private schools” dominating the rankings are very highly publicly indirectly subsidized by the federal government through its financial assistance programs, and the modest but real retreat by state governments from funding “state” universities has been offset by enhanced federal funding, having the unintended consequence of helping so-called private schools that are traditionally heavily tuition financed relative to state schools that traditionally depended very heavily on state subsidies. With very small exceptions (e.g., Hillsdale College) all higher education is government supported. Considering campus spending excesses, mediocre learning outcomes, and assaults on free expression, I am increasingly asking myself: why?