By Richard Vedder
Ask any top academician --what is a better school, Washington University in Saint Louis or Wabash College? They will say, "Wash U, of course." They will point out that Wash U ranks much higher in US News' rankings (the new ones come out in another week or so), although US News confuses the issue by having different lists for liberal arts colleges and for research universities.
Yet if you ask a professor at one of the high ranked schools --where are you sending your own children? Often, the answer will be one of the better liberal arts colleges. I once talked to a friend, the chair of the economics department at Stanford at the time, and asked why he was sending his kid to one of the Claremont colleges (where I was teaching at the time). He said "undergraduates get a much better education at Claremont than at Stanford, where we emphasize graduate training." In the new Forbes/CCAP rankings, Pomona (one of the Claremont colleges and ranked 20th) outdistances Stanford (rank 23).
Wabash (rank 12) and Centre (rank 13) colleges are small, dedicated to undergraduate teaching -as are other relatively hidden gems like Knox (rank 46) and Kenyon (rank 34) colleges. There are no graduate students who barely speak English teaching mathematics badly. Professors spend a lot of time with students --helping them transition from adolescence to adulthood in a responsible fashion. Everyone knows everyone else. It is a great environment to learn. Moreover, the schools are not paying huge amounts to superstar professors, football coaches or university presidents, so student debt loans, while not real low, are reasonable. The absence of debt, plus high student regard for instruction, is a major reason that West Point and the other service academies do so well in our rankings.
While the private schools dominate our top rankings (44 of 50 schools), the main reason is not that they are private, but rather that liberal arts college tend to be private. Public liberal arts New College (rank 29) did very well --and is probably one of the best bargains in American higher education. As mentioned before, only one of our top 50 schools has as many as 10,000 undergraduates.
But, as Forbes editor Michael Noer and I roughly said in introducing the Forbes/CCAP rankings: different strokes for different folks. For some, a large school emphasizing graduate training does just fine, and several of the mainstay large flagship state universities are in our top 100 schools (Virgina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Cal/Berkeley come immediately to mind). Sophisticated intellectually inclined kids are likely to be happier at the University of Chicago than at Centre College. A good not brilliantly academically talented kid might find Lake Forest College (rank 160) a better match than nearby Northwestern (ranked 11), even if she could get into Northwestern. And poorer kids worried about debt might consider Copper Union (rank 42) if they like an urban environment, or Berea College (rank 204) if they want a rural one.
Speaking of Northwestern (full disclosure --it is my alma mater), it handily beat (ranks in parentheses) Stanford (23), Chicago (18), Duke (80!), Penn (61), Cornell (121!), Dartmouth (127) and especially Wash U (146) in our rankings, but is below all of them in the US News assessment (although a new US News ranking is due out in another week). Northwestern is a school that I thought, thank God, never quite got over being predominantly an undergraduate institution --graduate programs there, while very important, are not quite as dominating as they are at the other research oriented schools. Taking undergraduates very seriously should be a quality that students and their parents look for in virtually any institution they evaluate.
Enough college counseling. I promise to get back to higher education policy matters shortly.