By Richard Vedder
F. King Alexander is a dynamic, articulate young university president (I think he was born in the year I received my Ph.D. and began teaching) who, I would predict, in 10 years or less will be considered a major name in American higher education. Currently president of Cal State University at Long Beach, King previously headed Murray State University.
King, who I met several years ago at a National Academies of Science event, called yesterday to chat. Calls these days from university leaders are always interesting. I feel a little like a rather famous criminal I once met (and actually signed his criminal indictment), Billy Milligan, who suffered from multiple personality disorder (a good read: Daniel Keyes's The Minds of Billy Milligan). Some people think I am the devil incarnate, a disagreeable person who went into the college rankings business to get rich and torment many great and distinguished universities (all untrue, by the way). Others think I am a selfless visionary --the successor to Mother Theresa --who is righting terrible institutional wrongs (these are the schools that ranked high in the Forbes rankings which I engineered.)
Back to King. He made two very good points. The payscale.com lists show that the median income of college graduates of many lesser ranked colleges is quite high, particularly in relation to the costs of attending college. We ought to look at the earnings of college graduates in relation to the cost of attending school --sort of an earnings-cost ratio. Amen. We need more data to do it comprehensively, and I suggested that King get the Cal State system to try to partner with payscale.com to allow it to happen. My Who's Who approach is a good first step to getting post-graduate occupational information (much better than Patricia McGuire notes in her quasi-hysterical attack on the Forbes rankings yesterday in INSIDE HIGHER ED), but King has the right idea where we should ultimately be moving in college evaluations.
King's second point was one that his boss Charlie Reed had previously made to me earlier: schools that have lots of poor kids have a harder time looking spiffy on the standard measures of academic success, and rankings need to be, roughly speaking, "Pell Grant adjusted" --take into account the diverse backgrounds of the incoming student body. I agree, and plan on doing some analysis of the Forbes vs. US News (and maybe Princeton Review) rankings with respect to this factor. Whether rankings should be truly "Pell Grant neutral", showing no discrimination against schools with lots of low income students is debatable, but it is at least a defensible position.
My one huge reservation to a lot of what I just said is the same as that of Charles Murray, whose latest great book Real Education I have about finished. Too many persons of marginal academic ability (and, sometimes, motivation) attend college, too few attend good trade schools, and too few are certified for work by external examination (like the CPA exam). Maybe rather than adjusting rankings to take account the less-than-great academic background of many students attending the Cal States of the world, perhaps there should be fewer Cal States in the first place --fewer people attending college. But that is a discussion for another day. Rankings probably should look at the academic world as it is, rather than the way it should be.
King has convinced me we need to have a broader national conversation on the whole business of college assessment (and rankings) and I have decided to put on a conference on the topic at the American Enterprise Institute (where I work). King will get the first invitation to speak. And my colleague Charles Murray will probably get the second, and Kevin Carey, who has written thoughtfully on rankings, will get the third.