How do we really rank?

Since 1983, colleges and universities across the country have fought tooth and nail for the highest rankings in U.S. News & World Report. The U.S. News rankings, which grade how much collegiate bang you get for your buck, have turned a little predictable lately. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton always lounge at the top while the “new Ivies” — Carnegie Mellon included — annually struggle to climb up a rung or two. (We came in at number 21 in the 2007 rankings, up one from last year.)

But the U.S. News ranking methodology is conspicuously lacking in one aspect — it doesn’t consider what each college or university gives back to the country. Carnegie Mellon might give you a solid curriculum vitae, but does it encourage community service and civic duty? Does it go out of its way to offer opportunities to those who can’t afford the cost of attendance? And how many of its esteemed alumni are working to help stop global warming or end poverty?

Enter the editors of Washington Monthly Magazine. Their goal is to find out which schools are the best based on how well they utilize your tax dollars. How are today’s universities faring?

The answer might surprise you. Washington Monthly used three standards to rank schools: how much a school got involved in national and community service, how it used its research dollars (quantified in Ph.D.s), and how much it encouraged social mobility (quantified in how many Pell Grants they gave out to lower-income students, and how many of those students successfully graduated). Based on their methodology, state schools and other public institutions climbed to the top, while the so-called “top schools” dropped in stature considerably. Carnegie Mellon tumbled over 30 spots to number 54.
Furthermore, the majority of Carnegie Mellon’s “peer schools” were ranked higher, with MIT at number one and Stanford University at number seven.

Washington Monthly does not offer explicit reasons for each school’s ranking, but we can take an educated, if not downright obvious, guess as to our fall from grace. We’re weak when it comes to community engagement and we’re not accessible to low-income students. Don’t look so shocked. In 2004, Carnegie Mellon distributed $1,844,000 in Pell Grants to low-income students. Compare that to Stanford University, a school of comparable size and population that gave out $2,490,258 in Pell Grants to its class of 2009. As for promoting service through national programs, Stanford sent 36 graduates into the Peace Corps in 2004, while Carnegie Mellon sent only eight through the Heinz School.

If you’re looking for more local service initiatives, you might be disappointed: For the 2006–2007 school year, the Joint Funding Committee allocated less than 2 percent of its million-dollar budget to groups dedicated to community service.

In short, Carnegie Mellon may be getting the best and the brightest, but it might not be putting them to the best use. Richard Hofstadter wrote, “The task of a university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation can affect the issue.” Imagine what we could do if students, faculty, and administration extended themselves in terms of service and outreach — not just to impress Washington Monthly, but to better the future for our country and community.