Back in the 1990s, when the American economy last bestrode the globe, many smart people observed that the secret to our success was our system of higher education, said to be “the finest in the world.” These people weren’t exactly wrong. America’s colleges and universities really were, and are, key to the country’s greatness. They produce the research and human capital that fuel the economy. They help Americans who are poor to become Americans who will prosper. And they shape the thoughts and ethics of the young Americans who will someday lead the country.
But just as there were underlying problems in the economy back then that grew unaddressed in the oughts and ultimately led to the miserable situation we’re now in, so too with higher education. The system, like the country itself, is in deep trouble.
Tuition -- the price of admission to middle-class life -- is rising far above the rate of inflation, as it has for years. At public colleges and universities, tuition hikes averaged nearly 8 percent this past academic year, thanks to cash-strapped state governments slashing higher education budgets. Community colleges, unable to keep up with demand in a tight labor market, are capping enrollments and turning students away. For-profit schools have turned out to be better at earning profits and foisting unpayable debt burdens on their students than providing them with marketable credentials. Many traditional nonprofit and public institutions aren’t a whole lot better; a recent study found that after four years of college more than a third of students made virtually no gains on a respected test of analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication skills. Elite schools, meanwhile, remain bastions of privilege, with 25 upper-income students for every low-income one. Though these schools have been trumpeting their eagerness to admit more poor and working-class students, an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that the percentage of students on Pell Grants at the 50 best-endowed colleges and universities in the country hasn’t budged since 2004.
While we’ve been letting problems like these fester, other countries have been building up their systems of higher education. As a result, the United States, once first in the world in the percentage of its young adults with college degrees, is now 16th, and slipping.
These are truly alarming trends. Yet most people in the media and in Washington don’t seem very alarmed. Compared to the hair-on-fire panic about the state of our economy, there is little awareness of or urgency about the mounting evidence of dysfunction in our higher education system, even though, as smart people will tell you, that system undergirds the economy.
Why this lackadaisical attitude? I blame U.S. News & World Report. Seriously (well, semi-seriously). Nothing does more to reinforce the country’s complacent outlook on higher education than the magazine’s widely read annual “America’s Best Colleges” rankings. The latest version was released last week and (surprise surprise) Harvard, Princeton and Yale came out on top. The magazine’s dubious metrics, which reward institutions for their fame, selectivity and money, guarantee that the same schools dominate the upper ranks every year.
This rivets the nation’s attention on a handful of prestigious schools that educate a tiny minority of America’s college students rather than on the thousands of other institutions that the vast majority attends. And it incentivizes those other schools to act more like Harvard -- to cherry-pick their students, soak their alumni, and spend more money -- rather than focus on other, more valuable missions. A school that does a superlative job sharpening the minds of and granting degrees to predominantly working-class students with less-than-stellar SATs, and does so while keeping spending under control, will never crack the U.S. News top 50. In fact, under U.S. News’ metrics, it will be penalized for doing those very things.
Since 2005, the magazine I edit, the Washington Monthly, has offered an alternative ranking based on how much public value colleges deliver for the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars we give them every year. We measure schools by three criteria: research (producing the scientific and humanistic study and PhDs that drive economic growth), social mobility (recruiting and graduating poorer students) and service (fostering an ethic of giving back to the country, either through military or civilian service). Looking at schools this way leads to a quite different hierarchy, with schools like Yale and Princeton eating the dust of places like UC-San Diego and Mississippi’s historically black Jackson State University, a school relegated to the bottom tier in U.S. News.
Obviously, there are many ways to rank schools. But here’s the advantage of ours: if colleges and universities were to vigorously compete on the basis of our criteria, America’s whole higher education system would get better at precisely the things we need it to do to get us out of the hole we’re in -- and America could reclaim the title of having the finest system of higher education in the world.