Every year, right around back-to-school time, U.S. News releases its ranking of the best colleges and universities in America. For the record, Princeton came out on top of the national rankings, and the University of California at Berkeley was the top public school. My alma mater, the University of Georgia, came in at #16, moving up two spots from last year.
I hope most readers know, however, that I report this “news” with more than a bit of skepticism. The U.S. News rankings have been widely and rightly criticized, even by those in the higher education establishment, as ranking the wrong things.
For example, graduation rates play a significant role in the rankings. But consider this: The University of North Carolina (UNC) has a very strong fifth-place finish among the public universities. UNC is also waiting to hear what its punishment from the NCAA will be for what is essentially academic fraud. From 1993 to 2011, more than 3,000 students—about half of them athletes—took an African Studies class that rarely met and had virtually no requirements other than a final term paper. One investigation found that about 40 percent of the term papers turned in contained evidence of plagiarism. In light of these facts, their high graduation rates might not be such a good thing.
Another criterion that plays a strong role in the ranking is an amorphous “Undergraduate Academic Reputation.” This criterion is determined mostly by surveys of academics. “Alumni Giving” counts in the rankings, too. That means schools with rich alumni get a further advantage, causing some liberal groups to cry foul, as they say poor people don’t have access to elite colleges. The Cato Institute highlights the other side of the coin, saying the generosity of rich alumni fund scholarships for poor but talented students. So perhaps this criterion should be weighted more, not less.
But what concerns me more is an almost complete disregard for such questions as: “Why education?” In purely practical terms, why should students (and the taxpayers who fund Pell Grants, back student loans, and subsidize public colleges) pay for a class in “Queer Theory” or a degree in “Gender Studies”?
How does one rank what should be important education outcomes, such as growing in students the ability to think critically, participate in civil society, and contribute to the general welfare of our country? Shouldn’t a college-educated person be able to distinguish what is good, true, and beautiful from that which is evil, false, kitschy, ugly, and banal? And who sets the standards for what is good, true, and beautiful on the modern secular college campus, a campus in which standards for goodness, truth, and beauty have been thoroughly relativized or are completely subjective?
These questions remind me of something Chuck Colson said more than 25 years ago:
Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of religion at Duke University, says public schools treat ethics as a matter of individual decision-making. The goal in moral education is to teach students how to make up their own minds.
The trouble, Hauerwas says, is that, “most students don’t have minds worth making up.”
Now, Hauerwas does not mean that as an insult. He merely means that most students have not had their minds trained by confrontation with the great principles of Truth and Justice expounded through centuries of Western culture. Students have been told that all they have to do is look within, judge their own feelings, choose what “feels right” to them.
What Chuck Colson and Stanley Hauerwas said about public schools should go double for colleges and universities, whose students should be even more prepared than first graders to confront the “great principles of Truth and Justice expounded through the centuries of Western culture.”
It seems unlikely that what Colson and Hauerwas advocate is happening on a large scale in colleges and universities across the country. However, we do find a bit of good news in these rankings. A number of conservative and Christian schools made the lists, though few had a high rank. And one of the things impressive about this list is its size. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities in America. The number of options can be daunting, but it can help Christian families to find a good option for their kids—they work at it.
And the U.S. News list is not the only list. The Young America’s Foundation has a list of the top colleges for conservative students. The Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) is a list of about 140 colleges and universities that take their Christian mission seriously. The CCCU has been in the eye of the storm recently regarding moral and theological issues, and not every member of the CCCU is—in my view—reliable. And there are a lot of great Christian colleges (such as Union University, The King’s College) that are not CCCU members. But browsing the CCCU website is a good way to start.
The bottom line: Take the U.S. News rankings—and all other rankings—with a grain of salt. Every rating system has a worldview behind it. If you are a parent helping to choose a college for your child, or if you are a student making a decision for yourself, know that worldview and be discerning as you make a decision that could be one of the most important of your life.
Image courtesy of simonkr at iStock by Getty Images.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.