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Every September, U.S. News & World Report publishes an issue which attempts to measure academic excellence at U.S. colleges and universities and to rank them accordingly. To quote The Washington Monthly,
What U.S. News does to arrive at its results involves gauging things like average faculty salaries, for instance, or the level of praise for one college from the presidents of other colleges. Maybe that's not totally useless, but it's also a bit like assessing the quality of restaurants based on how much they spend on linen.... We believe that what colleges do matters not just to prospective applicants, but also to the rest of us. After all, America depends on its institutions of higher education for a variety of crucial public tasks: conducting the cutting-edge research that drives the economy; offering students from low-income families a path to a better life; and positively shaping the characters of the young people who will go on to lead the country. Government provides colleges and universities with billions of dollars in research grants, tax benefits, and student financial aid to achieve these goals. If parents and teachers deserve to know how well colleges are spending their tuition dollars, shouldn't average citizens also have a way of finding out how well schools are spending their tax dollars?
My rationale for including The Washington Monthly's alternative rankings is a belief that education – for one's children or oneself – shouldn't be an impulse purchase. Just as most people would never buy a house or a car without doing a lot of comparison shopping and research, so it should be with higher education. Unfortunately, much of the information widely available to the public is not all that helpful – assuming a quality education is what you're looking for rather than prestige or other criteria unrelated to the type and quality of education your children or you actually receive.
Also, below are links to a number of articles aimed at those attending or about to attend college and their parents. They're from the November 2003, 2004, and 2005 issues of The Atlantic Monthly (one of the oldest and most respected magazines in the country, founded in 1857).
The Big Picture: Our annual survey of the admissions landscape uncovered recent and upcoming changes to the process, growing concern about tuition increases, and serious questions about whether colleges are fulfilling their mission
The Third Way: Liberal arts or a professional education? More and more students are choosing to combine elements of both. A leading proponent describes the emerging trend he calls "practice-oriented education"
The New College Chaos: College admissions officers say they now have many, many more applications than they know how to handle—and, often, less reliable information to help them decide which students to admit
The Bias Question: In a surprising challenge to the SAT's reputation as an unbiased measure of student learning, one researcher has argued that blacks do better than matched-ability whites on the harder questions of the SAT—something he believes their scores should reflect