Two years ago, it decided to get into the higher-education ratings game, but from a different perspective than U.S. News, which serves as the arbiter of bragging rights among Type A parents whose kids aced the SATs.
Washington Monthly doesn't try to parse the illusory gradations of prestige among, say, Yale, Duke and Stanford. Its rankings seek to assess what contribution a college makes to the public and national good.
They're based on three categories:
Social mobility. How many students does a college recruit from the ranks of the less-privileged, and how well does it help them seize hold of the opportunity and graduate?
Research. How much does a college contribute to the nation's store of innovation and research, and how many Ph.D's does it contribute to the national pool of expertise?
Service. How many students does a college propel into government and military service, or into helping professions such as teaching, social work, etc.?
According to this assessment, Happy Valley is a hotbed of public good. Penn State ranks fifth among 242 national universities rated.
Penn, showing that it retains some DNA from its founder, Ben Franklin, ranks a healthy 17th, second among the Ivies and well ahead of Harvard, Yale and Princeton (a shocking 78th, 21 behind Rutgers at 57).
Generally, these rankings treat public universities more kindly than U.S. News does, while declining to genuflect before elite brand names.
Still, the Philly suburbs' elite trinity - Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, U.S. News faves all - rank in the top 30 nationally.
These institutions' showing is all the more impressive in that the rating system is skewed against them. How? Two of those schools have Quaker roots, while the other is a women's college. So they get hammered in what is one of the more controversial metrics in the Monthly's rating system: percentage of students in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).
Washington Monthly is the home of neoliberalism, a brand of liberalism that puts a strong stress on national service, including military service. The key role of ROTC in the rankings is one reason Texas A&M comes out as top dog this year. I can hear people in Mount Airy slapping their foreheads in dismay: Boosting militarism! Shocking! But know that equal weight is given to the percentage of grads who enter the Peace Corps.
All rating systems are somewhat arbitrary and thoroughly debatable. That doesn't make them useless.
The U.S. News ratings filled a huge gap. Before them, parents and students had almost no help in navigating the veiled, costly mysteries of the higher ed marketplace.
College educators, like American educators generally, were never going to do anything useful to grade their own performance. It never ceases to amaze how people who spend their work lives assigning formula-driven, high-stakes grades to kids will yelp whenever anyone returns the favor on them.
The problem with the U.S. News rankings isn't so much how they rely on various statistical measures as proxies for quality. The bigger problem is how they ended up accelerating, rather than defusing, the prestige "arms race" among campuses. Colleges tried to game the U.S. News system, taking steps to improve their ratings that did real-life damage to students and their pocketbooks (such as the vogue for "early decision admissions").
The Monthly ratings, however you critique the methodology, provide a great service simply by asking a wholly different and entirely pertinent question:
"If parents and teachers deserve to know how well colleges are spending their tuition dollars, shouldn't average citizens have a way of finding out how well schools are spending their tax dollars?"
Monthly editor Paul Glastris cheerfully admits that his magazine's rankings suffer from a dearth of public data on how well college students learn, and what post-graduation paths they take. That, he notes, is because colleges refuse to release the academic data they collect, or lobby to block proposals to have the U.S. Department of Education collect post-graduate employment information.
Higher education is too important and too costly to be allowed to stumble along without genuine data and accountability.
The Washington Monthly ratings might not give all the right answers, but at least they ask some of the right questions.
Chris Satullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-4243.