America’s Best Colleges?

“It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem,” Malcolm S. Forbes said a few years ago.

Hana R. Alberts, Michael Noer and David M. Ewalt, writing for Forbes Magazine, have published “an alternative” to the quality report that U.S. News & World Report has long issued about American higher education.

It is not the best ranking system I have seen.

Darn it. It could have been.

Malcolm S. Forbes died young, about 18 years ago. As an interesting (to me) aside, he was born on my grandfather’s birthday, August 19, but the same year my parents were born. As far as I know, my family and his had nothing else in common although I did read his magazine. Mr. Forbes published Forbes Magazine which his father founded and his son now runs.

He was graduated from Princeton University, active in politics and community, and strong-willed about his magazine which he grew large.

Despite the shallowness of the college report, I suspect the aphorism rags to rags in three generations will not apply to the Capitalist Tool Forbeses.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s big idea seems worthwhile at first glance. Ranking the profs, career success, costs, graduation rates, and student recognition are all pretty good tests. Too bad their methodology fell apart at the starting gate. The group of mostly college students at CCAP gathered data from 7 million student evaluations of courses and instructors in a non-scientific, online, “inmates rating the asylum” poll site. That’s a quarter of the grade. Another quarter comes from Who’s Who listings. I have a Who’s Who listing along with a few million other Americans, so I’m pretty sure that’s not a great qualifier. Maybe they should use Wikipedia listings.

I find it interesting that Cal Tech is ahead of Harvard and that my mom’s alma mater, Swarthmore, is well ahead of Yale. Not to mention the fact that Dartmouth offers free tuition but is way down on the list.

OTOH, ya gotta ask yourself How does one really choose a school? I ended up at Stevens Institute of Technology almost by accident. I looked for schools that had belly button design. Webb didn’t accept me. Stevens did. Forbes ranked them number as either 127 or 565. Stevens is a Top-10 engineering school.

I taught in Vermont Colleges for several years. I even survived student rankings. With that caveat, I never thought that students should be allowed to design a curriculum even when I was a student and I have always believed that student ranking of teachers is too much Entertainment Tonight and too little NASA Tech Briefs.

Come on. Students go to school for one of four reasons: get out of the draft, get out of the house, get out of having to work for a living, OR TO LEARN SOMETHING. I can accept a student’s appraisal of courses or teachers after, say, long enough in the workplace to apply what was learned in school and to judge whether it helped her or hurt him.

Let me pose that as a question: Who do you want removing your appendix? The surgeon who has done it a few hundred times or the pre-med student who has read Appendectomies for Dummies?

At least Forbes recognized that “the sort of student who will thrive at Williams might drown at Caltech, to say nothing of West Point.”

That said, Forbes also believes that “these rankings reflect, in a very real way, the quality and cost of an undergraduate education at a wide range of American colleges and universities. And when families have to make a decision with a six-figure price tag and lifelong impact, we think they deserve all the information they can get.”

Pfui. I reckon that when families have to make that six-figure decision, they deserve better information than this. Here are the top 10 questions I would want answered plus a couple of extras:

Personal Questions
• Does the curriculum match what I need to learn?
• Do the instructors teach in a way that matches my learning style?
• Is the program rigor too much (or too little) for me?
• Does campus life help or hinder my growth?
• Will I find help from other alums in my chosen field?

Statistical Questions
• How much will it actually cost, net?
• What kind of job will I get upon graduation?
• Does my education stick me in a single track or can I branch out into whatever interests me as I grow?
• How much do employers and peers respect my school?
• How many freshmen wash out? How many graduate

Then, much lower on the list, come two questions CCAP asked:
• How many Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Genius Grants has the faculty accrued?
• How many Rhodes and Fulbright scholars come from the undergrad program?

One thought on “America’s Best Colleges?

  1. Most students have different career goals so YMMV. Some know they want to become engineers. Or elementary school teachers. Or pro football players. Engineering was simply the means to the end for me which was, at the time, naval architecture. Come to think of it, I think that’s true of a lot of Snevets Technitute of Instology grads when you look at the number of lawyers, MDs, business owners, priests, and presidents of countries we have turned out.

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