Today the Washington Monthly released its annual college issue online. There's a lot of good stuff in there, including its alternative school ranking that it has compiled since 2005. The universities that top the Monthly's list aren't necessarily the Ivy League schools like Harvard or Princeton, schools that continue to attract more and more applicants while admitting the same number of students and thus see their acceptance rates spiral downward.
Instead, the schools in the Monthly's rankings are schools that provide a means of social mobility and actually contribute research that's useful to society at large. Unsurprisingly, the top three schools on the Monthly's ranking of schools nationally come from the University of California system: San Diego, Berkeley, and UCLA. In fact, state schools tend to perform pretty well on the Monthly's rankings overall, leaving those private schools typically ranked highly in the U.S. News & World Reportrankings to dwindle further down the list.
The important thing that the Monthly is putting forward with its college issue is that the writers and editors are encouraging us to think more critically about what America wants out of colleges more generally. The answer, all too often, seems often to be that more education in America is better — after all, President Barack Obama issued a challenge to Americans to commit to "at least one year of higher education or advanced training." But we can't just stop at encouraging students to get more education. We also need to look at the quality of that education.
The Monthly's articles ask some critical questions about what higher education is and what it should do. They examine how some schools, dubbed "dropout factories," turn high-performing low-income high school students into college dropouts saddled with debt. They ask why George Washington University suddenly got a whole lot more expensive even if their students graduate with career earnings potentials on par with those who graduated from cheaper schools like the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland. They also look at some good models for making higher education better, like the University of Minnesota's Rochester campus, which is integrating undergrads more directly into its research and creating better learning opportunities for its students.
The articles published by the Monthly ask the question of what we actually want our higher education system to do. The answer isn't just throwing more money at it, although affordability and access are both really important pieces of the puzzle. Advocates for affordable college education experienced a huge victory when Congress passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), legislation that put subsidies toward Pell grants rather than toward less good federal loan subsidies, earlier this year. But a victory like SAFRA, as important as it is, isn't the end of the story. The real goal is to make college — including community colleges and other non-traditional higher ed opportunities — work better for students.