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A "better" College Guide? You betcha! 
2nd-Sep-2009 02:21 pm
Washington Monthly's new College Guide is a breath of fresh air. Especially in light of the U.S. News and World Report's annual ode to reputational measures of institutional quality.

Here's what Washington Monthly itself says about how it measures undergraduate college/university education: "We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country)."

Needless to say, I found myself nodding heartily in agreement while reading the methodology and the rationale and hoping that measures such as these are the ones to catch on. Prestige alone is undeniably powerful, but it is also socially corrosive.

Here are the top ten liberal arts colleges for 2009:
1) Amherst College (MA)
2) Mount Holyoke College (MA)
3) Williams College (MA)
4) Harvey Mudd College (CA)
5) Haverford College (PA)
6) Smith College (MA)
7) Bryn Mawr College (PA)
8) Swarthmore College (PA)
9) Carleton College (MN)
10) Wellesley College (MA)

Anyway, it's fascinating to see what changes when you cut away the glamour of prestige. We all knew that women's colleges kick ass, right? Well, the proof's in the pudding!

It's also nice to see validation of my teenaged self's choice of Mount Holyoke (when I probably could have had--and this is not, sadly, a boast--my pick of famous institutions). At the time, I had three reasons, remarkably similar to the criteria Washington Monthly uses, for choosing MHC: 1) None of the cutthroat, self-obsessed student behavior that accompanies the most prestigious institutions, 2) High-quality education that would help launch an academic/research career in both humanities and natural sciences, and 3) Social commitment and international orientation.
3rd-Sep-2009 11:22 am (UTC)
I see a lot of Seven Sisters and their brothers (now co-ed) on the list. (Were they ever called seven brothers?)

It seems to me, though, that there's a measure of undergraduate education that's as or more important than any of these which isn't measured by either survey, and that's emphasis on teaching. It's hard to measure, but it's just as important, if not more important, to undergraduate education than research.

My favorite and most influential professor in college, while tenured, never was promoted to full professor because he emphasized teaching over research and publication. Of course, once he retired, he finished the magnum opus that would probably have ensured his promotion. He gave the best, most complete tests ever (to the point where I even overheard grad students parodying them) and I got more inspiration from him than from the other professors in the department (history) combined. Then again, I took half the courses toward my history major from him.

A friend of mine taught chemistry at Barnard and was denied tenure because of lack of publications even though by all accounts, including those of the Dean of Students whose husband I later worked for, she was a terrific and effective teacher. Only the male faculty, whose wives didn't mind if they spent hours in the lab, and those women with no families who could afford to devote sixty hours a week to lab work and research on top of teaching received tenure. You had to live and work like a man to advance there. Carolyn Heilbrun would agree that it worked that way (minus the labs, of course) on the Columbia side of things too.

My friend now has tenure at St. John's and more publications than she had when she left Barnard, but she had to appeal to get it; her colleagues in the chemistry department voted to deny her tenure.

Not everyone who goes to the listed colleges has a wonderful experience either. A good friend of mine went to Mount Holyoke and had some sort of traumatic experience with a professor there. Whether it was personal or course-related I don't know because she cut off all contact with her former friends and wouldn't talk about it.

And while universities like Harvard tend to emphasize research over teaching, and hence might not rank so high in my estimation as they do in U.S. News and World Report, they have been helping lower-income students. Most of the recent publicity about need-blind admissions and aggressive recruitment of low-income students that I have seen has been about Harvard and Yale, not the colleges listed. In fact, some of the 'more prestigious' colleges and universities are in a better position to provide support and recruit lower-income students than the ones listed. That said, if my daughter were going to a liberal arts school (at this point she plans on art school), Harvard is not one of the ones I'd encourage her to go to. For undergrad, I'd prefer Yale, Princeton and Stanford over Harvard or any of the above, partially based on my observations during law school. I also find the omission of schools like Oberlin and Hampshire puzzling.

In addition, while it's not undergrad, Harvard Law School has a long history of supporting students working in the public sector or for the public good through loan forgiveness programs and other support as well as co-founding a free legal clinic as part of their academic clinical program (as opposed to student-run extracurricular clinical programs like the Legal Aid Clinic).
3rd-Sep-2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
Did you read all the literature that accompanies the rankings? The whole idea is to get at teaching quality, but since you can't measure that directly because it's so unstandardized across schools, you have to measure outcomes. Then the question becomes, What outcomes do we desire? The fastest track to six figure salaries? Or a disproportionate number of graduates who, in some way or another, devote themselves to a greater social good? The latter is what Washington Monthly is trying to determine.

There are separate rankings for research universities...and on those lists, only Stanford cracks the top 10. Harvard is 11, Yale is 23, Princeton is 28. None of this surprises me.

BTW, you just don't get tenure as an assistant prof. at the Ivies. This would include Barnard, since it's yoked to Columbia. This is supposed to be well-known common wisdom in the academic world, but it's been my experience that not everybody knows it.
3rd-Sep-2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
Which are you talking about with reference to assistant professorship - my history prof or my friend? I went to a state school as an undergraduate, not an Ivy - Binghamton, to be exact. I attended an Ivy League law school that had a noticeable and real, in both dollar terms and time, commitment to social good. Unlike others, Harvard doesn't act like its clinical programs are second-class or second-rate compared to its academic programs, unlike (by hearsay) I've heard other law schools do *cough cough* like Yale and U of Chicago, both of which are notorious for being theoretically-oriented.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not get into Yale, although I did get into U of Chicago.

Edited at 2009-09-03 04:41 pm (UTC)
3rd-Sep-2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
Which are you talking about with reference to assistant professorship - my history prof or my friend?

Your friend, the one who was denied tenure at Barnard. An entry level assistant professorship at an Ivy League school might as well be a six year postdoc. The only real way to get a tenured position at an Ivy is to become a superstar elsewhere and then get recruited.

I really only know how the academy works in the humanities/social sciences, and to a lesser degree the natural sciences. But I'd always assumed that for new graduates coming out of the prestigious private law schools serving the public good has to take a backseat to paying off one's massive student debt... ^^;;;
4th-Sep-2009 12:38 pm (UTC)
To take the latter point first: Harvard was less expensive than BU or BC, probably because of the massive endowment it sits on, and it's for the very reason you give that it has SPIL (I think that's Students in Public Interest Law, but I could be wrong) and other loan forgiveness programs to make it possible for graduates to work in lower-paid public service positions. Harvard, some law firms, and Harvard-affiliates (faculty, students, and alums) also support stipends and subsidies for summer employment in public interest jobs. I'm pretty sure some of the other top law schools with large endowments do similar things.

I'm sure my friend knew what a trudge it would be - she did a postdoc, but I forget for how long or where, and she taught at Wellesley for a year as a visitor or adjunct before going to Barnard - but her point, and mine, was that doing the work necessary to obtaining tenure was incompatible with family life. As it was, there's a gap of eight or so years between her two children. This tilts the playing field in favor of men, who are freer to ignore their families to the extent necessary to achieve their ambitions, because someone else will pick the kids up, cook dinner, tuck them in, etc., and women without family obligations. And in her case it wasn't that her husband didn't pitch in, it's that they pitch in equally. Since he's a computer consultant and often has to visit far off clients, she wasn't able to just stay and work in the lab. I think that given the way society is organized this is implicitly sexist.

As it was, she didn't get favorable consideration in her department at St. John's either; some of that may have been because not all her publications were out at that time, but those that weren't were in the pipeline (she had three or four going at once that year). By the time she got to the college-level appeal status, the publications were out and she got favorable treatment. If she hadn't, she was prepared to sue, as I believe Carolyn Heilbrun did with Columbia.
4th-Sep-2009 07:42 am (UTC)
I'm rather biased in my delight, but it is nice to see a shuffle in the "list." I agree that prestige is all too powerful in shapong our perceptions of which institutions provide the best quality in ... well... anything. Universities maintains their ranking through the public perception, and all the things that come with that perception, including pulling in more ambitious people and more limelight. However, I really do feel that my time at MHC was a unique and privileged one, even if it's not name that's recognized by everyone. I think the academic atmosphere there was friendly, encouraging, and still very studious (sometimes too much so ... half the student population sleeping over the library was rather unsanitary, in my opinion), without the additional stress from cut-throat competition. I'm glad that someone's using a ranking system that's more meaningful to me. Then again, I chose MHC, so of course I'd tend to agree, hmm?
9th-Sep-2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
You know, I find it interesting that at Mount Holyoke, which was founded with an explicitly social mission (the early students of the seminary became teachers and missionaries in really amazing numbers), some of that original mission seems to continue. Whether by self-selection or otherwise, a *lot* of students do go into some sort of service post-graduation: Teach for America, Peace Corps, Fulbright (as I did), etc.

Personally, though, I don't think it's entirely self-selection. I've seen too many people with Ivy degrees go into...finance. >_< Talk about *not* serving the greater good...
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