August 31, 2012 10:02:12 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Two area universities were recognized by a national publication this week for providing an affordable, high-quality education and producing graduates who improve the world through their work, research and service.
Mississippi University for Women ranked 15th out of 682 top master's degree colleges, and Mississippi State University ranked 96th out of 281 top national universities listed in Washington Monthly's annual College Guide.
The rankings bear a stark contrast to more well-known status lists like those compiled by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and Princeton Review, primarily because of the heavy weight Washington Monthly gave to colleges maintaining low tuition rates while supporting research and community service.
Washington Monthly's list considered three broad categories and divided colleges into four divisions: National colleges, which offer Ph.Ds; master's degree colleges, which do not offer doctorates; baccalaureate schools, which do not offer degrees beyond the bachelor's; and liberal arts colleges, which primarily cater to the needs of students pursuing degrees in the liberal arts.
The social mobility segment took into account a number of factors, including the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and recipients' graduation rates, price per year after subtracting need-based financial aid and a cost-adjusted graduation measure, which rewards colleges for graduating students while keeping tuition low.
The research category considered the amount of money schools spent on research, the number of bachelor's degree recipients who went on to earn doctorates and the total number of science and engineering Ph.Ds awarded.
The service segment of the calculations factored number of alumni who became members of the Peace Corps, percentage of students in ROTC, percentage of federal work-study funds allotted to community service jobs, number of students participating in community service and total service hours, staff and curriculum support for community service and the availability of community service scholarships.
The big picture
Overall, MUW and MSU ranked well among comparable colleges.
"There's fairly solid performance across the board, and that's something that's very commendable," said Washington Monthly researcher and writer Robert Kelchen, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the methodologist for this year's guide.
Some schools scored high in one of the three categories but lagged in the other two, he said. Because the three sections were given equal weight, that disparity pulled some colleges down the rung.
"A school that can hold its own in all three and have a reasonable price is something we like to see," Kelchen said via telephone Thursday. "Anything in the top 100 is definitely good."
He said while there's always room for improvement, neither MUW nor MSU presented any "glaring weaknesses."
MUW scored particularly well in its ability to recruit low-income students, with 64 percent of its student body receiving Pell Grants, compared to MSU's 28 percent, but these students are statistically less likely to graduate than their more affluent peers.
MUW only awarded diplomas to 39 percent, falling short of the 47 percent expected graduation rate. At MSU, 55 percent were expected to graduate, but the university surpassed this, awarding diplomas to 58 percent.
In the research category, MUW struggled in the rankings and MSU excelled, but that's not unusual, Kelchen said. Colleges typically only report research expenditures of more than $1 million, and most master's degree colleges, like The W, rarely spend more. Large national universities may spend billions on research.
For that reason, MUW reported no research expenditures but fared better in converting bachelor's degree students to doctoral recipients.
MSU reported $232 million in research expenditures, and, like MUW, scored within the top 100 schools whose bachelor's degree recipients went on to pursue doctorate degrees.
Both schools received high marks for their dedication to community service, not surprising in a state which consistently ranks first in the nation for charitable giving.
MUW ranked ninth for its students' community service participation, with 29 percent of all federal work-study funds going toward jobs in the community service sector. Students, faculty and staff devoted 263,000 hours to community service in 2010-2011, MUW officials report.
MSU also devoted 29 percent of work-study funds to community service and scored high for having a considerable number of ROTC members. It also ranked among the top 100 colleges with students actively involved in community service.
The meaning behind the numbers
Washington Monthly's complex, data-driven ranking system took nearly six months to compile, Kelchen said. Because value was such an important part of the determining factors, public universities like MSU and MUW tended to trounce private institutions like Yale, which barely squeaked into the magazine's top 50 national universities.
But with the economy continuing to struggle and unemployment remaining at an all-time high, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates are leaving college with a degree in staggering, sometimes six-figure, debt.
"As a nation, we are inadvertently conducting a grand social experiment in which a new generation of young people is starting life attached to a financial ball and chain," the magazine's editors wrote in an introduction to the September/October 2012 issue. "Americans have long looked to higher education as a source of social mobility and public good. Increasingly, it is becoming something much different, and much worse: a narrowing aperture of opportunity through which only the children of the wealthy emerge unscathed."
But how important are these publications' widely disparate rankings?
Primarily, they serve as a rough estimate of an institution's value to students and their families, Kelchen said. They also measure individual components which help separate factors a student may feel are important, like determining which colleges value research and which cultivate an atmosphere of community service.
"It recognizes colleges that go above and beyond," Kelchen said of his research.
"This recognition affirms the quality of students' educational experiences at MUW, and our faculty understands the role of education and how it benefits the community," MUW President Dr. Jim Borsig stated in a press release. "Our students are demonstrating their focus on service by using their educational opportunities to better our world."
MSU ranked 157th out of 280 national universities listed by U.S. News & World Report, and MUW ranked 46th out of 89 top Southern universities. On Forbes' list of 650 best colleges, MSU ranked 397 and MUW was not listed. Neither school was listed in Forbes' top 20 Southern colleges. The Princeton Review did not rank either college.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.