Rankings, Schmankings

If you are in any way connected to American higher education, you have had to live through 24+ hours of blather about the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities in the U.S.

All across America there is jubilation, gnashing of teeth, hand wringing, self-satisfied smirking, sadness, and relief-that-we-didn’t-go-down-a-spot.

Honestly, I couldn’t care less about these and any other ranking of American colleges and universities. Why? Because not one of the rankings that flood the airwaves captures the educational experiences of the 99% of college students who don’t attend one of America’s elite institutions.

Just so you understand, when we talk about “America’s Top Colleges” as though they were somehow representative of higher education in this country, we are guilty of such gross over simplification that if one of our students did that in an essay, we’d probably give him a D-. As evidence for this gross conflation of the elite institutions with higher education, I offer the following:

The top two institutions in this year’s USNews rankings are Princeton University and Williams College. Princeton’s endowment floats around $21 billion dollars. Williams College’s endowment is in the $2 billion plus range. Between them, they enroll about 10,000 students. Princeton’s endowment per student is almost $2.6 million and Williams’ is around $1.1 million.

By contrast, in the states where these elite institutions live, Montclair State University enrolls around 20,000 students and has an endowment just over $55 million. UMass Lowell enrolls around 17,500 students and has an endowment of just under $80 million. Montclair State’s endowment per student is almost $2,800 and UMass Lowell’s is almost $4,500. Thus, Princeton has more than 900 times the endowment per student of Montclair State and Williams has 244 times the endowment of UMass Lowell.

Princeton and Williams together enroll just over 10,000 students. Our two state schools together enroll just under 40,000. And those are only two of the public institutions in the local state systems.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 20 million Americans will attend college this year. Fewer than 175,000 will attend one of the 20 institutions in the two Top 10 lists in USNews. In other words, 0.8%, as in less than 1%, of all students in American colleges and universities attend one of these 20 institutions. And yet, we talk about these 20 as though they were somehow representative of American higher education.

As crude as these raw numbers are, they demonstrate very clearly how any conversation about the educational experiences of students in American higher education has to segregate out the elite institutions, just as any conversation of golf would segregate Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, and Jason Day from the foursome that just teed off in front of you at the local public links.

By way of corrective, here’s a good example of the reality of American higher education–a reality never discussed in USNews or any other publication that ranks American institutions:

Last year I was fortunate to come to know, in great detail, Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. Unless you are from Vermont, you probably haven’t heard of Johnson State. But what happens there every day is what happens on campuses across this country. Among the many great and wonderful people I met when I was there were staff from housing and student life, who told me that over the holiday and summer breaks they have a number of students who they simply can’t send home, so they find ways to keep them around, warm, fed, and learning.

Can’t go home? Why not? Because there is no home for the student to return to. Because one or both parents is addicted to heroin, a scourge in rural New England just as it is across the United States. Because one of the parents is violent and the student would be at risk of substantial physical harm. Because the family is too poor to welcome back another mouth to feed.

This is not the bucolic Vermont we see in all the tourist brochures. But it is the Vermont that exists behind the pretty post cards, just as it is the Virginia that exists behind the “Virginia is for Lovers” billboards, just as it is in Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, or any other state you choose.

Far too many American students have to fight every single day just to eat, to be warm, and to learn, and far too many American colleges and universities do just what Johnson State College does–they feed those students, they put roofs over their heads somewhere, somehow, and they teach them, find them jobs, launch them into productive lives, or simply inspire them to think about the world in ways they never had before.

That, my friends, is the reality of American higher education.

Not Princeton.

Not Williams.

And there isn’t a ranking on the planet that captures that reality.