The Data-Driven Have to Be Strong

Thank God for sound and responsible higher-education journalism! I almost blundered and sent my son to Columbia University. To be frank, my son had his heart set on it. There were tears when he learned he was attending Cal State Fullerton instead. Sometimes, I said, the data-driven have to be strong.

My son is a victim of “the myth … that paying a ransom for a college degree is worth it, particularly at a top-tier institution.” I was, too, until John Wasik of Forbes explained to me that most college-rankings systems are about “brand-name appeal.” Sure, everyone thinks Columbia is a fine school; and yes, U.S. News & World Report said last year that it was the fourth best national university in the country. But are you really going to ask a defunct magazine which colleges are nimble and quick enough to survive the next educational tsunami? Don’t laugh. It’s coming. I tell the other dads that people laughed at Noah, too, and look what happened to them.

Wasik directed me to Washington Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck ratings, where California State University at Fullerton is No. 4 and Columbia is, like, nowhere, unless you count Columbia International University, in South Carolina. My son insisted that “Bang for the Buck” is misleading because the ranking is only about, as the magazine says, “helping non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.” He pointed out that we are not exactly non-wealthy. I said there is nothing in the tables about non-wealthy students. I explained that what analysts call my “price sensitivity” has a lot to do with why we are affluent. And I pointed out that he has not done any research, unlike John Wasik, who has, with Washington Monthly’s help, uncovered several diamonds in the rough that “probably wouldn’t make any other publication’s top-10 list,” such as a small institution in Massachusetts called “Amherst College.”

When I got a call from Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, recruiting my son, I was frankly embarrassed. But you have to be tough with these academics, who are very resistant to change. Incredibly, he mentioned U.S. News again. I said, honey, you are not only nowhere in the Bang for Your Buck ratings but you are also a couple of slots below Michigan State University in Washington Monthly’s overall ratings of national universities. Even Princeton, another old-fashioned institution that has not fully embraced the online revolution, is ahead of you. He tried to convince me that Washington Monthly’s overall ratings were actually about an institution’s “contribution to the public good,” rather than about what a school could do for my dear son. But that’s exactly what you would expect a person who is ignorant about the college bubble to say. Call me, I said, when you are not 25 slots behind the University of Texas at El Paso.

Lee (if I may) also tried to convince me that it would benefit my son to attend college with some of the best and brightest students in the world. But I explained that “inputs” was the old U.S. News way of thinking about things. I said, I’ve already taken care of the input; show me the output. Now when my caller ID says Lee Bollinger, I let it go to voice mail.

The fact is that most parents mean well but have no idea how to research colleges. One of my know-it-all friends tried to foist a guide called Colleges That Change Lives on me. There were a lot of words in this guide, like “liberal education” and “transformative experience.” Come to think of it, Lee also talked about those things, along with something he called a “core curriculum.” Hello, can it be measured? Now, when one of the other book-group dads starts droning on about the liberal education his daughter is getting at the University of Chicago, I stick my fingers in my ears, put on my best Lost in Space robot voice, and say “That does not compute.” It irritates him, but the other dads love it.

My son shouts “But I don’t want to go to Cal State!” less frequently now. The data-driven have to be strong. Thank God for sound and responsible higher-education journalism.

Jonathan Marks is an associate professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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