August 20, 2008

Caught Up in College Rankings

By Larry Wilson, Public

A recent brief on our Student Life page about Caltech being named No. 2 college in the nation in the first ranking of 569 institutes of higher learning caused a couple of readers to write or call with the same question: "So who's No. 1?"

Fair enough. Actually, entirely fair. As a community newspaper, we sometimes get so caught up in the local angle, in being houseproud, that we ignore the fact that, say, some hoity-toity, Ivy League, eating club-infested, Tiger-tailed joint slipped by ahead of our Beavers.

Princeton. That's it. Princeton's No. 1. Supposedly.

Actually, the Forbes' list is a really rather more interesting version of the famous U.S. News & World Report ranking of universities - on which Caltech several years ago came out No. 1.

Its rankers at something called the Center for College Affordability and Productivity say its "methodology attempts to put itself in a student's shoes" by answering these questions: "How good will my professors be? Will the school help me achieve notable career success? If I have to borrow to pay for college, how deeply will I go into debt? What are the chances I will graduate in four years? Are students and faculty recognized nationally, or even globally?"

Rounding out the top five after the New Jersey outfit and Our Fair Campus: Harvard, Swarthmore and Williams. Best deal, with a catch: No. 6 West Point, with its $0 tuition. Weirdest school up high: all-male Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. at No. 12. Next local college to crow about: Pomona at No. 20.

It turns out that the ranking, which uses a lot of student input, is heavily biased toward small liberal arts colleges. The big state research universities, even the best and hardest to get into, score abysmally: the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, comes in 215th. Only one school with more than 10,000 undergrads - University of Virginia - cracked the top 50.

Best deal for a top-ranked place after graduating from which you don't have to go fight a war: New College in Sarasota, Fla., at less than $16,000 a year. (Go to to be amazed by most of these top private colleges that approach $50,000 a year, with Yale, among a few others, surpassing that.)

Perhaps we don't need more such rankings, none of which answer the only question that counts: Which colleges might be right for you or yours?

But, like all such lists, that doesn't mean that it isn't kind of fun.

Semi-academic issues: Neighbors of San Rafael Elementary School in Pasadena write with concern about the campus' "dead lawn, water coming out of the ground from an unknown source on the east side of the school, very dirty windows which haven't been cleaned in years, dead or dying bushes with trash collecting underneath, the neglect of the olive trees in the front courtyard, wild 'trees' growing in the west corner of the courtyard." They say they've contacted school administrators and the district to no avail. Maybe this will help create some avail.

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Public Editor Larry Wilson's blog is publiceye.

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