It wasn’t that long ago when the common thinking was that a college degree was a non-negotiable in global, digital, information economy. Learned minds spoke about how postsecondary education was necessary for all, as we extolled the virtues of both STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education as well as the 21st century skills derived from a strong liberal arts education.
Today, we have research centers conducting studies on whether higher education is even worth it, concluding “About 2,400 institutions, enrolling about 18 million undergraduates nationwide, reach a minimum level of value return.”
What changed that we have so quickly shifted from non-negotiable to “minimum level of value?”
Looking back at my own experiences in higher education, I can see both sides. Having helped build two innovative institutions of higher education — including a teachers college abandoning the Carnegie unit and focusing strictly on a competency model — I can see the need to innovate and ensure that new programs meet the needs and expectations of today’s learners.
I can also look at experiences I found on the campus of a private university, struggling for survival. A campus where we were forced to eliminate expected majors in areas such as English, history, and chemistry, placing all of our chips in the center of the table, saying that practical programs like nursing, coupled with regional college rankings from decades past, could solve all the institutional ills.
And I can even reflect on one of my first experiences as a professional working in the higher education space, tapped specifically to help a college boost its standings in the US News college rankings, knowing it would result in raising the institution’s standing, resulting in increased donations, applications, enrollment, and recognition. And it worked. We didn’t change the quality of the academic offerings or the commitment from the faculty. We didn’t impact faculty hires or campus research. But we did do the necessary marketing to rise a tier or two in the course of a handful of years. It definitely looked great on the college website.
As of today, none of the institutions of higher education I’ve been involved with — more than a dozen across the nation as either a senior leader or consultant — has been forced to close its doors. But I have had to prepare for the worst-case scenario, knowing the devastation it can bring to the students, the institution, and the community. Or of the impact it has on an alumni network that no longer has a college. Or the federal government needing to cancel student loans for students at colleges that have closed or have been stripped of their accreditation.
The funny thing about these closures is that they are often followed by a common statement. “We never saw it coming.” We never see the replacement of tenure-track professors with adjuncts as a canary in the coal mine. We brush off the elimination of majors, seeing it instead as focusing on student preferences today. We blame COVID or a host of other reasons for drops in applications and enrollment. We tag a slowed economy with a rapidly rising discount rate to keep head counts up and dorms at minimum capacity.
We never see it coming because we have traditionally look to college rankings like US News as the true determination of a college’s strength or weakness. But look at Baker College in Michigan or New Jersey’s Bloomfield College or Iowa Wesleyan University or Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin. All IHEs that received praise from the higher ed sector and respectable ratings from US News, only to find enrollments plummet and red ink increase, demanding either a forced merger or a closing of doors. The traditional rankings have us all looking one way, never seeing the truth behind the public stats.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t be that way. For most college goers, an institutional decision is the most expensive choice they have made to date, a decision that will follow them for decades as they try to pay off loans (at least until the federal government decides to do something about college lending). And they do so without having a full understanding of the quality of their selection and the potential return on their investment. They make decisions based on web sites, video tours, opinions of friends of their parents, athletic performance, and yes, college rankings.
So it was heartening to again see the recent release of Washington Monthly’s annual college guide and rankings, dubbed as “a socially conscious alternative to the U.S. News & World Report rankings.” Instead of focusing the institutional prestige, wealth, and exclusivity that US News has long prized, Washington Monthly gives points to those colleges that help low-income and first-gen students earn four-year degrees. It also credits those IHEs that encourage students to vote and serve their country and that produce the scholars and scholarship that drive economic growth and human betterment.
A quick glance at the Washington Monthly rankings show 13 state schools in the Top 30, more than twice as many publics as US News recognizes. Florida International University is 19th on the Washington Monthly list, while only #151 on US News. Cal State-Fresno is 26th on Washington Monthly, yet only 250th with US News. Illinois’ Governors State University is #2 on the Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck Midwest Colleges list, and #127 on U.S. News’s Regional Universities Midwest ranking. And HBCU Grambling State University is #10 on the Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck Southern Colleges ranking but #99 among U.S. News’s Southern Universities.
I take great pride in earning my undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, regularly named both a top “public Ivy” as well as a top value by Money magazine and others. And I take equal pride in working toward a doctorate at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, which has decided to stop submitting data to ranking operations like US News.
Why? Because I know that rankings like US News — lists that helped me choose UVA over Emory and Chapel Hill and, yes, Princeton — have limited utility, particularly for undergraduates. After working in the space, I can now see that the US News approach is the past, built for the analog, industrial economy of old. The Washington Monthly rankings, while now almost 20 years old, are the future, reflecting the priorities and ideals of the developing global information economy ahead of us.