Colleges Are All the Same

Make them more like elementary schools.

Can anyone actually tell me if the University of Illinois is a better or worse school than Utah State? Or how or why Brown University is supposedly a better school than Clemson University? Or, to make things easier, would you be able to choose any two colleges in the United States and show me, definitively, why one is better than the other? 

Would you use the U.S. News and World Report’s 2021 list of “best” colleges, which puts Illinois at #47, Utah at #241, Brown at #14 and Clemson at #74?

You might. But as many already know, and as a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History statistically confirms, (and which its own methodology shows in galling transparency), the U.S. News and World Report’s list, when you get down to it, really only measures the status and wealth of a school. Undue weight are given to selectivity of its admissions, “peer reputation” (what other college administrators think about the school), and, effectively, the socioeconomic background of its students. Though this might be a bitter pill to swallow for parents who live in “good” school districts, or for those lucky few who attended highly selective colleges, the pedigree of the student body, how much wealth their families have, or what other people think of the school has little to nothing to do with how effective a school is at teaching its students.

So, if by asking “which schools are better than others?” we are actually asking “which schools teach their students best?”, well, then, the U.S. News’ list is for the birds. 

Perhaps, then, you’d like to use a different list of the “best” schools? The Washington Monthly has one. For 15 years it has gleefully thumbed its nose at the U.S. News’ list by publishing its own ranking, one meant to help “typical students.” Sounds promising. On their most recent 2020 list, to take the aforementioned schools, Illinois ranked 18th, Utah 10th, Brown 37th, and Clemson 161st. Quite a difference. How’d they rank these schools so differently than the U.S. News list? And does it mean Utah State is better than Brown?

Their methodology puts equal weight on three very different factors -- social mobility, research and national service -- and which take into account, more specifically (but not exclusively):

  • graduation rate

  • affordability

  • percentage of students receiving federal aid

  • percentages of students in ROTC, who do community service, who go on to join the Peace Corps, or go on to earn their PhDs

  • funds spent on research

  • academic accomplishments of the faculty.

But do any of those, really, indicate anything about how well the school teaches its students? That is, what the academic experience is in the classroom? 

Well, no. A high ranking may indicate to incoming students a bit about campus culture (diverse, purposeful, civic-minded) as well as the sort of academic and socio-emotional supports the school has in place, but... that last factor — research — well, actually the higher a school scores in the category, the worse the classroom experience likely is for students since the more time a professor spends in the lab or chasing awards, the less time he’s going to have for the brass tacks of good teaching: building relationships with students, planning classes, teaching classes, and grading assignments. And those things, whether you’re teaching 1st graders or college sophomores, take up a shitload of time and energy1.

To be sure, the Washington Monthly’s list is far more useful and preferable than the U.S. News’s venal tool for privilege hoarders and their gutless enablers, but, still, the question remains unanswered: can anyone actually tell me if the University of Illinois is a better or worse school than Utah State? Can anyone tell me at which school more learning happens in its classrooms? 

The answer is no.

Implausible as it sounds, it is impossible to determine how much learning happens inside the classrooms of America’s colleges. Not a single person or organization can point to our colleges and say with hard evidence, “More learning happens at this school than at that school.” Certainly students and their families cannot.

I’m not the first to point this out. In 2005, in the second edition of an enormous, research-heavy book called How College Affects Students, the authors found that when it comes to the “acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills,” there was virtually no difference among most colleges. “The great majority of postsecondary institutions,” the authors wrote, “appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth.” Further, in The Price You Pay for College, by Ron Leiber, he quotes the following from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2006 Spelling Commission on the Future of Higher Education in America: “Parents and students have no solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one college than another.” In the same chapter, Leiber also writes about a book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by two professors who first tried to determine how much learning was going on and, upon discovering there was no data anywhere, set up their own small study, only to conclude that “not much” learning (as measured by an exam called the Collegiate Learning Assessment which gauges critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills) was going on. Awesome. 

It’s worth conceding the point that, yes, what you learn inside a classroom at college is only a portion of the overall learning and flourishing that generally happens in college outside the classroom. But allowing for that doesn’t diminish how important classroom learning actually is. In fact, a consideration of the individual needs of students based on the type of student they are (full-time, part-time, commuter, young, old), the type of program they’re in (A.A., B.A., M.A.) and what they’re studying (History, Mechanical Engineering, Graphic Design) actually underscores how critical the classroom experience is since it’s the one experience all of those various students share. Not everyone hangs out in the quad, or goes to parties, or joins extracurriculars - but everyone sits in class. I speak from experience. Having attended five separate post-secondary institutions ranging from a wonderful degree mill to the graduate school of an Ivy League college, the common mode through which I acquired the very different things I needed from each institution was, at the end of the day, sitting in class at the foot of a teacher. This is the case everywhere. If it weren’t, colleges could just be enormous, free-range Montessoris.

And why not ask America’s colleges to prove to all of us how much learning does or does not happen in their classrooms? Why should institutes of higher education be exempt from the systems of accountability we have implemented in our K-12 schools in the last two decades? Why shouldn’t colleges make use of those best practices and data-driven tools, and which have, by the way, dramatically improved the educational outcomes for millions of poor students, minority students, English Language Learners and students with disabilities? Why not track and improve pedagogy at the post-secondary level? Why not insist on department- or institution-wide uniformity in academic standards and forms of assessment? And, for that matter, why not give an exit exam to all college students? After all, isn’t it hypocritical to require that high school seniors prove to college administrators through a battery of standardized tests that they are academically up to snuff while not requiring the same thing of their own college seniors? And would any of this really -- really -- infringe upon the academic freedom we rightfully grant colleges and their instructors? Wouldn’t it be pusillanimous, dishonest or downright malfeasant to insist it’s impossible to have accountability and standards and academic freedom?

Because here’s why this is a big deal. The promise of higher education is not working for a lot of people, most especially the poor. Anyone who’s been paying attention can recite the sundry ways in which it is not: low graduation rates (just 11% of poor students finish) and which are disparate among racial groups; soaring tuition; hobbling student debt; perennial complaints from employers that graduates are ill-prepared2. Looking at the low graduation rates alone, yes, there are many reasons students don’t finish school, many of which are beyond what a college can mitigate against, but the current trends aren’t just abysmal, they’re inequitable, and if we don’t accept them at the K-12 level — and we don’t — why would we accept them at the college level? Why are we okay with colleges dropping the baton in the final lap?

But this is not just about accountability or helping students make more informed decisions. This is about how good schools work and what happens to their students when schools do what they are supposed to do.

Which is teach.

Being able to answer the question “Is the University of Illinois a better school than Utah State?” (or just getting close to answering that question) would mean looking into the classrooms on those campuses and deciding if what is going on in those classrooms was educationally beneficial for the students or not. By doing so, and doing something about it (presumably), the college experience would vastly improve for students, especially the poor, and, quite possibly, so would their graduation rates.

Let it be known: Schools are only as good as their teachers. Not their sports teams, or libraries, or dining halls, or faculty awards, or endowments. None of that matters. When it comes to student learning, and the student experience writ large, it is mostly about the teachers. (You’ve never heard anyone talk about their favorite assistant principal or their most inspiring provost.) Teachers are the ones who deliver instruction, teachers are who students spend the most time with, teachers are who students seek affirmation and guidance from the most, and, with the possible exception of coaches, teachers are the ones who have the most transformative power over students. They make school. They are school.

It’s as true at Shipshewana-Scott Elementary as it is at Yale.

If we want more college graduates, and better college graduates, let’s find a way to answer the question: Is the University of Illinois better or worse than Utah State?


Above image: Marianne Stokes, “Candlemas Day,” 1901. From the Tate.

Further Reading


This bias against teaching in higher education has long been criticized, and will be instantly recognizable to anyone who waited days to get a one word email response from one of their professors. “Professors gain little -- not salary, not free time, or promotion -- by becoming better teachers,” Andrew Roberts, a professor at Northwestern, wrote in The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. “They gain all of these things by becoming betters researchers.” 


Even anecdotally, think about your own friends: how many switched careers once or twice within ten years of graduating because they chose the wrong major? Might some better mentoring prevented some of those missteps?