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Thinking Harvard? Ranking System Says Think Again


Switching gears now, school is back in session in much of the country and for many high school students that means it's time to look at colleges and, increasingly now, as more students go to college than ever, they and their parents are turning to rankings, such as the one published by U.S. News and World Report, to try to figure out the best fit.

But, as you might imagine, there are critics of the popular college rankings and we are going to hear from one of the most original and persistent critics. His name is Paul Glastris and he is the editor-in-chief of Washington Monthly, which produces what the magazine calls a different kind of college ranking, and he's here to tell us more about it in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome back, Paul. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

PAUL GLASTIS: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you've done this ranking every year since - what - 2004, so many people might be familiar with it, but for those who are not, in a nutshell, you object to the traditional rankings because you think that they reward colleges and universities for the wrong things. Like what?

GLASTIS: U.S. News, in particular, but all that some of the other rankings, too. They base their rankings on exclusivity, how - and spending. The more you spend on a teach - pay for your teachers, the more you exclude students through selectivity, the more elite-y the school is, the higher it goes on the rankings.

We say colleges should be educating the students they have based on what the country needs and the country needs three things from colleges. They need - and I think we all basically agree on that. We want colleges to promote social mobility so people of modest means can get ahead. We want them to create the research and the Ph.D.s that drive economic growth, and we want students to come away with some sense of giving back to the country.

So it's on those three measures that we do our metrics and it delivers a very, very different ranking.

MARTIN: Well, I don't think people all agree on that. I think one of the things you're criticizing is the sense that college - you're saying that it shouldn't just be about what the college can do for you. It's also what the college or university is doing for the country because you're saying it's a shared investment, not just a personal investment.

You know, but to that end, you said that the colleges with better-than-expected graduation rates and lower costs get the highest marks. You call that your cost-adjusted graduation rates. You found that the most cost-effective schools, given that measure, were public ones, plus the minority-serving ones, like the University of Texas El Paso and Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. What are some of the things that you think they're doing right?

GLASTIS: They look to see if the kids are meeting their goals, if they're attending their classes, if they're dropping out of classes, that they see early warnings that the kids are falling off the path of graduation and they intervene. It's not rocket science. It's just good organization. And, also, some schools really do charge less and really do offer good aid.

MARTIN: You know, six of your top 20 overall come from the University of California system with UC San Diego being number one. They're 37 by U.S. News and World Report, but yet, you know, a lot - there's been a lot of attention to the budget cuts that the UC system has faced, cost increases. How do you square all that up? I mean, there are reports that, you know, kids are taking longer to graduate because they can't even get into some of the classes that they need for their majors.

GLASTIS: The University of California system was built over many, many decades and it's not going to be ruined overnight, no matter how tough the budget cuts from the legislature. Second, it's not just the University of California system that's getting budget cuts. It's all the other state schools, too.

So, relatively, the University of California system, schools like Riverside, like San Diego, are still great bets for students. They still have large numbers of kids coming in on Pell Grants and graduating at higher rates. They still are producing tons of Ph.D.s and their kids go on and serve in ROTC and the Peace Corps.

MARTIN: ROTC, meaning?


MARTIN: ROTC. One school that's on your top 30 list of national universities that I think might surprise some people, given that one of the things you're explicitly trying to do is say it's not about how much it costs, not about how much you spend, but about what you deliver. Harvard University, number 11. It's ranked number one in the U.S. News rankings and also Duke is number 26 on your list and I think, you know, by every measure, those are elite schools. So how'd they end up on these lists?

GLASTIS: Most of the ivy leagues don't do well. The ones that do tend to do a little bit better in recruiting kids from low income backgrounds and a little bit better in service. The kids are going into the military. They're going into the Peace Corps. They're serving in AmeriCorps. So these are our measures and they have done OK.

MARTIN: It brings me to student debt, though. You have a feature called Getting Rid of the College Loan repo man where you paint a really dire picture of what happens when kids fall behind on these student loan debts. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

GLASTIS: Well, you know, when you and I were young all those many years ago, people used to say, I worked my way through college. But, for four year bachelor's degrees, it's becoming almost impossible, so more and more kids are borrowing because of the rising costs of college. College, which used to be this ticket to prosperity and opportunity - now, we're going to send you on that journey with a ball and chain around your ankle.

And President Obama did an amazing thing that most people don't know about a couple of years ago in kicking the banks out of the student loan business, saving the Treasury about $67 billion over 10 years that much of what is being pumped back into Pell Grants to make college affordable for more lower income folks. But what remains in place is this whole system of enterprises, profit and nonprofit, of college loan servicing companies and collections agencies, which most people don't even know exist. But, when you fall behind on your college loan, you're going to find out about because they make their money coming after you and trying to divert you from different paths where you can more easily pay your loans back.

MARTIN: And, finally, as part of our convention coverage, we've been asking political leaders, many of the people participating in the conventions, what they think success is. What does a successful country look like? We'd like to ask you that question.

GLASTIS: To be able to have dignity, the dignity of an income, the dignity of some control over your work environment, the admiration of your neighbors and family and I think there's an absolutely dead on broad sense in this country that that capacity, for most people, to have that kind of dignity and independence is eroding.

MARTIN: Paul Glastris is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. The magazine's 2012 college rankings - they call them a different kind of college ranking - are available now in the September/October issue, and Paul Glastris joined once again in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Paul, thanks so much for joining us.

GLASTIS: Thanks for inviting me.


MARTIN: Just ahead, this year's Democratic platform breaks new ground on gay rights by embracing same-sex marriage, but Madeline Davis first argued for Democrats who support civil rights for gays 40 years ago at the 1972 convention. So her advice to young activists? Prepare for a long fight and stay rested.

MADELINE DAVIS: Do as much as you can to not get overwhelmed. Take vacations, sleep well.

MARTIN: More wisdom from veteran gay rights activist Madeline Davis. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: As befits a star of his party, former President Bill Clinton has a leading role at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. We'll take a closer look at what Clinton's big moment means for President Obama and whether it could help the president and the party win over undecided voters. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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