What do we rank when we rank colleges? Who determines how and who benefits?: student empowerment and the development of alternative college rankings.

Author:Schuler, Douglas
Position:Teaching Critical University Studies


This story began when my students and I at the Evergreen State College began looking into college rankings. We started this inquiry more or less because of an article on the "Smartest Colleges." As a faculty member (and alumnus) at a non-traditional liberal arts college I am aware that we do things differently and consequently I look somewhat dubiously on conventional ranking systems for colleges. With the class focus on "civic intelligence," approaches that purport to measure abstract social concepts can be relevant to us, especially if they could help us in furthering our understanding of civic intelligence. This short article describes how that somewhat casual initial inquiry led to a more purposeful project with substantial goals far beyond our pay grade. It highlights several of the interesting aspects of our project and its implications for educational activities in the classroom and beyond.

What is the Value of Colleges and Universities?

Every year 20 million people apply to colleges in the United States. To help them identify the schools they'd like to attend many of the hopefuls consult one or more rankings. Although there are many alternatives (such as Greenest Colleges, Best Party Schools, Best Value Colleges, and Colleges That Change Lives) many, if not most, people turn to the US News and World Report's (USNWR) annual college rankings ("The Best Colleges") as their go-to guide.

When we dig deeper into how these ratings are devised we uncover some interesting factoids. Stanford University (and Alice Lloyd College, a small Christian school in rural Kentucky), for example, lead the United States in the percentage of applicants they reject (95%). Harvard's alumni harvest is the most impressive ($650 million in 2015) and MIT graduates tend to earn the highest salaries right after graduation ($110,200 annually on the average).

Although all of that information is actually factored into the ratings, we may ask (as many Radical Teacher readers have undoubtedly also asked) how much it actually tells us about which colleges are "best"? And best for whom? Without actually thinking about it, many people accept information like this as meaningful, legitimate, and authoritative when they rely on college rankings to make important decisions.

While the need to simplify the process of college selection for potential applicants is real, the reliance on approaches like the USNWR's may be problematic. For one thing, these rankings may be failing to advise students thoughtfully. The damage, however, may be more broadly significant: degrading our vision of education, perpetuating social privilege, skewing education towards a market orientation away from public problem-solving, and helping, even, to discourage real learning in schools and classrooms--including, for one thing, downplaying the educational importance of time not spent in classrooms.

Civic Intelligence at Evergreen

Over the years my attention has been increasingly drawn to the question of how groups of all types and sizes, from a handful of people to entire countries or the world, address shared problems. There is no question that some groups do this better than others. For over a decade I've been using civic intelligence as the name of that social capacity or phenomenon. The "amount" of civic intelligence the group has is reflected by the extent that they succeed in addressing problems they face efficiently and equitably and that they have the knowledge, skills, attitudes, social relations, and other resources that are likely to be useful in the face of future challenges (Schuler, 2001). Civic intelligence exists to some degree in all groups and to the degree that it is applied will determine how humankind addresses issues such as climate change, whether wars can be avoided, and how equitable societies are. Thus the quantity and quality of civic intelligence will determine quality of life and possibly even survival itself.

Over the years as my students and I considered civic intelligence the more we realized that studying it was not enough. Civic intelligence must actually be practiced through thought and action if a deep understanding of its potential, challenge, and significance is to be realized. One implication of this is that we ask questions and seek answers rather than just read about cases in a book. Hence we frequently look at our own circumstances, including how education is approached at our own school, the Evergreen State College. Evergreen is a public liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington whose basic philosophy of interdisciplinary studies integrates theory and practice and is strongly rooted in the progressive education tradition of John Dewey, Jane Addams, and others. Evergreen strives to serve non-traditional and other marginalized groups and approximately 50% of Evergreen's students are at or below the federal poverty line.

Evergreen Students Tackle Ranking

As part of our exploration a few years back in our Social Innovation and Civic Intelligence program, which looked at various ways that social reforms were enacted, my students and I became acquainted with a recent news story on the "Smartest Colleges" in the United States. The study was conducted by Lumosity, a "brain training" company. The "smartest" college...

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