It’s an article of faith, repeatedly endlessly by leaders in Virginia’s higher-ed establishment, that Virginia has one of the best systems of public education in the country, if not the best. There is some justification for the high esteem in which Virginia institutions hold themselves. W. Taylor Revely IV, president of Longwood University, cites US News & World-Report rankings in an op-ed published today (see “Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development“) to make the case that collectively speaking Virginia’s colleges are the best.
But US News & World-Report is not the only group publishing college rankings. Using a different methodology, The Wall Street Journal rolled out its own “U.S. College Rankings” today. The results are a real come-down. My alma mater, the University of Virginia, ranks 26th nationally under the U.S. News approach. By the WSJ‘s reckoning, it ranks 50th! The College of William & Mary gets demoted from 32nd to 82nd, Virginia Tech from 69th to 134th, Virginia Commonwealth University from 171st to 458th, and George Mason from 140th to 260th. Yikes!
I’m not suggesting that the WSJ methodology is more valid than U.S. News‘. As the WSJ notes on methodology make clear, rankings depend upon what you measure, and what weights you assign to those measures. Among other factors, the WSJ measures racial, ethnic and financial diversity. That certainly is a factor to consider in evaluating an institution from a social justice perspective, but does it reflect the quality of instruction? Debatable.
None of the rankings incorporate the measure that I think is most important — cognitive value added, or gains in a student’s ability to read, write, and speak critically, analytically and clearly. We don’t have the capacity to measure that now, so from personal perspective I’m not sure how useful any rankings are.
Speaking of critical, analytical thinking, Virginia’s business, civic and political leaders need to engage in some. Instead of repeating the conventional wisdom, we need to ask dispassionately, are our public colleges and universities as great as we think they are? If they are, they arguably merit greater state financial support with fewer strings attached. If they aren’t — if the higher-ed model isn’t working as well as we’d like in Virginia — perhaps the system cries out for restructuring and reform. As we gear up for another big debate about the state’s role in higher education, we cannot duck these issues.
Update: The original post was based upon last year’s WSJ rankings. I have updated the chart and the text to reflect the 2018 rankings. Hat tip: LocalGovGuy.There are currently no comments highlighted.