Back to School
A short reading list to make sense of classroom activity and beyond.
Labor Day is next week, so it is still summer in my book. My theory is that the school year at every level should start after Labor Day, not before. But I’ll leave that for another time.
My topic today is higher education—what comes after K-12. This post will cover three themes. In each I’ll suggest a few articles worth reading, some of them brand new and some from the archives. Then I’ll offer the bigger point I think the articles underscore. Here we go:
1. Why college rankings matter.
It’s hard to beat the landmark piece on this topic, which came out 22 years ago today. It was by Nicholas Thompson, then a young editor at The Washington Monthly and as it happens now CEO of The Atlantic. The piece was called “Playing With Numbers,” and you can read it on The Monthly’s site. It stands up amazingly well.
The one-sentence version of its argument, and of the later articles I’ll list below, is: What has been good for a particular business has been bad for an entire sector of society.
-The business in this case is the college-ranking industry, which was pioneered by US News in the 1980s but has rapidly spread, including to areas like elementary schools and hospitals.
The argument in favor of rankings… is that they would supposedly give students and parents “more information” about colleges to consider.
In reality, they brought out the worst rather than the best in all participants in the college-admission process: students, families, admissions offices, institutions, the press.
—For families and students, they added one more needless layer of anxiety to an already needlessly stressful process…
—For institutions, they encouraged cooking-the-books tricks with numbers, to help themselves move a few notches up or down the charts… How do I know this? For two years I was the editor of US News, and among the reasons I lasted only two years was a showdown with the owner about cleaning up this system.
Worse, especially in the early decades… they reinforced and rewarded pure privilege. Early rankings were based on endowment size, and alumni giving, and “reputation,” and other indicators of “having been born on third base” and starting out ahead.
—For admissions offices, they encouraged ramping up the applicant pool—so that the school could reject a higher share of applicants, and therefore seem more “selective” and desirable.
—For the press, they directed attention to something that doesn’t matter— whether centuries-old schools were supposedly moving “up” or “down” year by year—rather than realities of how they worked and whom they helped.
You get the idea. But here is a further reading list on the problems and some solutions:
The entire brand-new edition of The Washington Monthly’s college guide. Since 2005 The Monthly has taken its own pioneering step of assessing colleges not by what they have but on what they do for students, communities, and society. The issue is chock-full of strong pieces.
Kevin Carey’s introduction and overview to The Monthly’s approach to rankings. Another overview is here. The premise of The Monthly’s approach is that bad rankings are not going away. Therefore the main remedy is to offset and outnumber them with useful rankings.
Paul Glastris’s back story of how The Monthly first got into the reform-the-rankings business.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far has been published just this week. Now, from the archives:
A few months ago Colin Diver, former president of Reed College, published a book called Breaking Ranks, about what rankings had done to higher ed and how educators could fight back. You can listen to an interesting podcast with him here.
Higher Ed Dive had a recent piece summing up the controversy about Columbia University’s place in the rankings, and whether it was based on phony data.
This list is a start. And here is the short version of the bigger message: a business opportunity has inflicted harm on higher education. Now higher ed is looking for ways to protect itself, and it can use help from the rest of us.
2. Why community colleges matter.
In the brand-new Monthly college guide, Kevin Carey’s overview emphasizes why community colleges remain so essential for opening opportunity to Americans, and yet have been so badly battered by the stresses of the pandemic era. In her piece in the same issue called “Breaking the Cycle of Privilege,” Laura Colarusso explains how Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, has devised some answers.
Over the past decade, Deb and I have emphasized again and again the ways in which community colleges may be the essential higher-ed institutions for our times. Yes, of course, America’s great research universities are its crown jewels. Yes, its Land Grant network has been of crucial importance. Yes, its liberal arts schools are underpinnings of democracy and attractions to students from around the world. Yes, its HBCUs have an irreplaceable role in creating opportunity and sustaining culture and tradition. On down the list, yes yes yes.
But at this moment, for the strains on this American society, community colleges may be the part of higher ed most in need of attention, concern, and support. I made that case just before the pandemic, after a visit to Michigan and then again after a visit to Ohio. Other pieces Deb and I have done on the theme are indexed here. And please see this site from our friends at Achieving the Dream.
The bigger message from these articles: the part of our educational structure that is least-often discussed deserves first-tier notice and support.
3. Why telling the full American story matters.
Or, if a tree falls in the forest ….
The brand-new college issue of The Monthly has an article by Deb and one by me. Each is based on reporting from Muncie, Indiana, and the role that Ball State University has played there.
Deb’s story is about the way the student-run paper, the century-old Ball State Daily News, has helped fill the gaps created by corporate ownership and contraction of the “normal” local press. (The Muncie Star-Press is Gannett-owned, with all that now implies.) My story is about how Ball State University as a whole has taken unprecedented steps to address a crisis in the Muncie Community Schools.
Three days ago, after our latest reporting through Ohio, I wrote about a range of important civic innovations that practically no one outside of the immediate vicinity had ever heard about. As I said in that piece, I think the barriers to conveying or comprehending positive news, beyond each community’s borders, have become a significant factor in America’s troubled public life.
People in any one place that is making progress feel more isolated than they need to be, or should.
Three years ago, after our first “look what’s happening in Muncie!” trip and report, I commented that news about the city was “unknown outside Indiana.” A reader wrote back to say: Outside Indiana? As he put it: “I live in Indianapolis, and consider myself well-informed, and I hadn’t heard or read about what’s going on in Muncie. This is a direct result of the death of local journalism.”
The reality of the country is a balance of its crises and failures, which understandably are the center of national news, and its responses, which can slip from broader view. The danger is that they become trees falling unnoticed in the forest, rather than (to push the metaphor) sources of new growth.
The Washington Monthly’s new issue will give you ideas about problems, but also about solutions. We’re glad to be part of it, and we hope you will read and learn from it too.