Robert Reich on College Rankings and the Value of Public Universities

In last week’s iteration of his syndicated column, Robert Reich takes on college rankings. After noting that the Obama administration has decided to give up on the idea of providing some sort of federal rankings to U.S. colleges and universities, Reich describes the most widely promoted college guide, that produced by U.S. News and World Report, as being “analogous to a restaurant guide that gives top ratings to the most expensive establishments that are backed and frequented by the wealthiest gourmands–and much lower rankings to restaurants with the best food at lower prices that attract the widest range of diners.”

After pointing out that the magazine’s rankings are far from “neutral” because they are clearly weighted to favor the most “exclusive and expensive” institutions, Reich argues for the often overlooked importance of public universities:

“The U.S. News rankings perpetuate the myth that these elite institutions offer the best education – as if the economic diversity of a student body and the values and career choices of its undergraduates were irrelevant to receiving a high-quality education.

“Public universities are at an inherent disadvantage on these criteria because they rely on state funding instead of wealthy alumni. They also admit large numbers of students, which often means a lower expenditure per student.

“And because public universities have a special responsibility to be accessible to students from every economic class, they take more chances on a broader range of promising students, including many who are the first in their families to attend college.”

Unfortunately for the rest of us, Reich uses his own current institution, the University of California at Berkeley, to make the case for the broader value of public universities. Clearly, it would have been more instructive and politically helpful if he had focused instead on any one of the institutions in the California State University system.

For although he makes an interesting point about the students attending Cal-Berkeley—“More Pell-grant eligible students (a proxy for students from low-income families) attend Berkeley than attend all of the Ivy League schools combined”—that point surely would have been even more clearly illustrated by the numbers from any of the Cal State campuses.

Still, he does close on what is probably the most essential point that gets lost in all of the calculation of starting salaries and future income:

“My Berkeley students are more involved in, and more of them are aiming for careers in, public service than any group of students I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching.”

Oh, and he plugs the rankings provided by the Washington Monthly as a worthwhile alternative to those provided by U.S. News and World Report.



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