By Bryan Keogh
Economics & Business Editor
Robert Kelchen, a scholar of higher education, oversees the college rankings at Washington Monthly. The magazine’s rankings are meant to provide an alternative to the more popular college rankings put out each year by U.S. News & World Report.
When was the first time you encountered the U.S. News college rankings?
Robert Kelchen: I was a graduate student in the late 2000s and started to pay closer attention to how higher education worked. I became fascinated with how colleges would send out celebratory press releases whenever they rose in the U.S. News rankings and then either ignore or criticize the rankings in the following year.
Why did you decide to study these rankings?
Kelchen: As a graduate student thinking about dissertation topics, I was interested in learning about how college rankings developed. The U.S. News rankings were (and still are) the best-known set of rankings out there, but I was frustrated by how colleges could move up in the U.S. News rankings simply by spending more money. This led me to write a chapter of my dissertation about what college rankings would look like if they took both graduation rates and the cost of providing the education into account. The editorial team at Washington Monthly heard about my research in 2012, and invited me to take over the role of putting together the rankings. I have been responsible for the rankings ever since.
3. What distinguishes your college rankings from the U.S. News college rankings?
— Robert Kelchen
Kelchen: The U.S. News rankings place a lot of weight on selectivity, prestige and how much money colleges have. The Washington Monthly rankings give equal weight to a college’s performance on measures of what is known as social mobility, research and national and community service among students.
4. How do you determine if a college is fostering upward mobility?
Kelchen: Social mobility, or helping students move up the social and economic ladders, is one of the key goals of American higher education. There are enormous gaps in college graduation rates by both family income and race/ethnicity. These gaps are important to close because students who earn a college degree tend to do much better in life than those who do not.
We look at a college’s contribution to social mobility in a number of ways. We look at whether an institution does a good job both enrolling and graduating students from lower-income families or who are the first in their family to go to college. We look at whether students are able to repay their loans, and also how affordable a college is for an individual student after all grants and scholarships are provided.
5. What other outputs do your rankings measure?
Kelchen: We also consider how well colleges perform on research and service. Our primary research measures are the number of students who go on to earn Ph.D.s and the amount of research spending on campus, with research-focused universities also being ranked based on the share of award-winning faculty and the number of Ph.D.s they award. For service, we look at the share of students involved in the Peace Corps and the ROTC branches, and whether colleges use federal work-study funds to support community service.
6. Do you ever think the college rankings you oversee will become more popular than the U.S. News college rankings?
Kelchen: It’s a harder sell to get status-conscious families to look at colleges that aren’t considered elite but actually do a better job of educating the students they have. If U.S. News evolved to a point where the Washington Monthly rankings were unnecessary, I would be a happy camper. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Until then, we will keep putting out the rankings every year, with the 2019 rankings being released on the Washington Monthly website on Aug. 26.
Disclosure: The Washington Monthly College Rankings is supported by funding from the Lumina Foundation, which is also a funder of The Conversation.