College Rankings And Proposition 209
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September 18, 2009, 05:28 AM
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The neoliberal Washington Monthly magazine has gotten into the business of ranking colleges, but they do it based on their assessment of each university`s "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)."

Interestingly, in their 2009 rankings of 258 national universities, the top three contributors to the public good are all prevented by law from practicing affirmative action: UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UCLA. (Of course, the UC administrations break the law, but Prop. 209 does keep them from doing it as flagrantly as they would wish.)

As a UCLA grad (MBA, 1982), I guess this should make my heart go pitter-patter with alma maternal pride, but, I dunno, I`m not sure I`m persuaded. Now, some of the high rankings of the UC universities stem from the Research measures being partly biased in favor of sheer size of school. For example, Berkeley, a huge place, is lauded for being first in the country in number of science and engineering Ph.D.`s awarded annually, while, say, Cal Tech is downgraded for being only 38th in this absolute measure.

But, what interests me is the credit the magazine gives for having a high graduation rate relative to average SAT scores and percent of students getting Pell Grants for being low income. For example, UCLA ranks 7th "best" in the country at graduation rates because a simple multiple regression model of its SAT/Pell percentages predicts that only 76% would graduate but 90% actually do.

I gather the idea is that UCLA is to be commended for inspiring its students with a love of learning or something, but, certainly, one simple way to boost your graduation rate is to make graduating easier. Consider a counter-example Cal Tech: A few years ago, I was walking across the Cal Tech campus and I stopped to listen to a speech given by a sophomore coed to a group of high school students and their parents considering Cal Tech. The young lady who had been chosen by Cal Tech to talk to potential students started talking about how big an adjustment freshmen year is, and how hard it is, and all the all-nighters you have to pull, and how brusque the professors are, and how emotionally wrenching it all is ... and then she broke into tears over her memories.

According to the Washington Monthly`s (presumably linear) model, 104% of Cal Tech students should graduate, but only 89% do, so Cal Tech ranks 248th out of 258 in contributing to the public good by graduating people from college.

If I had a kid who could get into Cal Tech, I`d probably want him to go to Harvey Mudd instead. But, is Cal Tech detracting from the common good by being hard? Beats me.

By the way, Cal Tech is the only university out of the bottom 20 in graduation rates to be private. Colleges largely funded by dads writing checks tend to be more accommodating than at least some colleges funded largely by the taxpayers. The elite model these days is to have very high admissions standards and pretty low graduation standards. Is that better for the country? I don`t know, and I doubt if the Washington Monthly knows either.

So, why are the graduation rates at the University of California schools so high? UCLA didn`t use to be easy — six of my high school friends went off to UCLA, rushed the same fraternity, drank a lot of beer, and flunked out together by the end of their freshmen year. Has it gotten easier? I don`t know.

The affirmative action ban probably helps.

One obvious reason is that their student bodies are so heavily Asian, whose parents push them hard to graduate.

I`m also wondering whether the UC schools are jiggering the statistics without the Washington Monthly folks catching on. The UC schools have a little-publicized backdoor in that they accept a huge number of transfer students (UCLA takes in about 3,500 per year), typically from California`s junior colleges. Are they counting transfer students who only spend half their college career on the UC campus?