BOB GARFIELD:: And I'm Bob Garfield. It's back to school time, with all those cute little 18-year-olds packing their pencil boxes and toddling off to colleges and universities they and their parents have been obsessing over for two years. What happens next can range from academic Nirvana to 46,000-dollar-a-year debauchery. But if the school and the kid turn out to be a poor match, it's not for the want of trying. The codependent relationship between colleges and students has spawned the lucrative industry-within-the-magazine-industry called "College Guides." U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and others collect reams of data from U.S. colleges and crunch the numbers to rank the best, the less and the rest. Jay Mathews, education reporter for The Washington Post, says school administrators hate the exercise, which they deem arbitrary and coercive, but can't afford not to participate.
JAY MATHEWS:: As a group, they get together in meetings in the summer in nice resort towns and complain about the lists and say, gosh, we really should resist giving them the information, but they almost never do. The one school that does, Reed College, has suffered for it. It's probably 20, 30 points below where it would be if it cooperated with U.S. News. So most of the rest of them just sort of accept it and move on.
BOB GARFIELD:: Okay. You're a university president. It's the year, let's say, 1969. You have two major jobs – one, to have the undergraduates not set the administration building on fire -
JAY MATHEWS:: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:: - and two, to go out to lunch with dying old ladies to try to get their legacy for your endowment.
JAY MATHEWS:: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD:: But I gather with the advent of these lists, things have gotten a little more complicated for administration officials.
JAY MATHEWS:: Right. I mean, The U.S. News list, for instance, puts great emphasis on alumni giving. So now you really have to worry not about the old ladies taken to lunch, but you have to worry about getting as many alumni as possible to give you even five bucks, because participation is the way they rate alumni giving. You also want to worry about if you have enough Nobel Laureates on your faculty. That counts. You have to worry about SAT scores of the kids you're admitting, and that's a problem, because your admissions dean wants to cut back on the use of the SAT as an admissions device, because he thinks it's a dumb number and it misses a lot of kids with interesting talents that don't show up on an SAT test.
BOB GARFIELD:: Do you think that U.S. News et al are measuring the right things?
JAY MATHEWS:: No. It mainly measures selectivity – that is, which colleges are most likely to reject you. It's not a measure of how much value these universities are adding to kids' lives. None of them measure how well kids at Harvard learn compared to how well kids at Kenyon College learn.
BOB GARFIELD:: So entering the fray are a couple of other publications. Washington Monthly. Tell me what they're up to.
JAY MATHEWS:: They say, we're not going to look at what the colleges can do for you. We're going to look at what they're doing for our country. And they've produced a sort of patriotic college rating system which looks at three general areas – social mobility – they give you points if you are recruiting lots of low-income students, as measured by how many of your kids have federal Pell Grants; by research, you know, top-level research, with the idea that research adds to the value of the country; also, how many of your graduates go on to get PhD's; and, finally, service. And this is the, for a liberal magazine, which The Washington Monthly is – I thought this was really interesting and contrary – they do look at the percentage of graduates who go on to the Peace Corps, and they look at the percentage of students on work study who are taking public service jobs with their work study money. But they also measure what percentage of your students go on to the military, which is, I think, a charming way of putting a really right-wing concept into a measure. And they have found, when they look at the overall, number one in the country is not Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are down in the 20s and 30s. Number one is MIT, which has a big advantage with all the research, then the U.C. Berkeley, Pennsylvania State University, UCLA and Texas A&M is number five. Those aren't schools that you would see in the top of the U.S. News list.
BOB GARFIELD:: That's an interesting approach, but do you have any reason to think [LAUGHS] that the educational establishment is going to start reacting to those criteria, making sure they graduate more Pell Grant students and getting their kids into ROTC?
JAY MATHEWS:: I think they might. If you go to any conference of college presidents these days and you ask about admissions, they express a deep guilt about the fact that their institutions are turning into playgrounds for upper-middle-class and upper-class students. If anything, the percentage of their kids whose families are pretty well off has increased over the last several years. It makes them unhappy. It makes them feel like they're not doing what they came into education to do. And so a lot of them are worried about this, and enough alumni feel the same way that I think we will see more efforts to get more low-income kids into colleges than we have in the past.
BOB GARFIELD:: Is this a journalistic endeavor or is it just, you know, some sort of cash cow?
JAY MATHEWS:: Well, it clearly brings in money. The other magazines that are rating colleges are doing it in part because there's such an intense interest. This is the absolutely most traumatic thing that middle-class families go through, and they want as much information as possible. But, you know, you can also defend it journalistically because it's information that people really want. That's what we're supposed to give them. It's maybe not as highfaluting as telling them, you know, what's happening in Iraq and Lebanon, but it's, you know, news you can use, and that's what a lot of us are here for. So it's a pleasing combination of both milking the cash and doing what we're supposed to do as reporters.
BOB GARFIELD:: Okay, Jay. Well, thank you very much for joining us.
JAY MATHEWS:: You're welcome, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:: Jay Mathews writes about education for The Washington Post.