What REALLY Constitutes the Worst Colleges in America?

November 29th 2014

Kristal High

Washington Monthly recently endeavored to create a list of the worst colleges in America, a worthwhile pursuit, perhaps, considering how much we fork out in tuition each year and how much debt we accumulate trying to “get a good education.” While the analysis presented some compelling rationales about the quality of one’s education being tied to cost, debt, and graduation rates, it missed the boat on weighing the main indicator of how good or bad someone’s college education may be: economic potential.

While there are no doubt those among us who pursue college as an exercise in existential experimentation, fulfilling our need to ascend the heights of America’s learned class just for the love of knowledge, most of us attend college as a means to an end. The real point of education – at least it should be – is to prepare yourself to contribute to society in some meaningful way and to be able to make a living at your chosen profession.  

From the time we’re young, we’re taught that going to school and getting a good education are necessary predicates to success in life. Studies and statistics are cited repeatedly about how much better off college graduates are than their peers who have not attained some level of higher education.  The fact of the matter is, though, that the main reason a college education matters is because it’s supposed to teach us some sort of valuable skills that we can then translate into jobs or entrepreneurial opportunities, enabling us to pay our bills, save for retirement, set a better financial course for our kids, and take some nice vacations and enjoy some nice things in the meantime.  If a college doesn’t do that, then, yes, it may be one of the worst in the nation.

When it comes to assigning value to the best colleges in the country, we most often reflect on the cache of a given institution. It may cost more money, we may take on more debt to go to tier one schools (trust me, I know) but ultimately, the recognition of going to a “great school” is worth it – not because of bragging rights, but because of what our economic potential becomes for having attended a particular school.  The potential to advance based on prestige only works if you go to a top tier school, a conundrum that was recently explored in CNN Films’ Ivory Tower, a look at the real value of college these days and the tension that exists between educating students and competing for prestige among academic institutions. 

In reality, though, not everyone will be able to attend an Ivy League school. Not everyone will want to attend an Ivy League school. But everyone who goes to college (or community college) does so with the expectation that their education will be valuable to them. That’s why, instead of focusing on lists about which school is better than another based on things like tuition, test scores, endowments, and class size, we should rank schools by the way in which they prepare their students to go out into the world as productive citizens. 

Upon graduation, students should be able to find work, making a livable wage, within six months of matriculation, or they should be prepared to pursue a graduate degree, or be armed with the skills to start a viable entrepreneurial venture. If they are not so equipped, we can feel comfortable in saying that these students have not attended a good school. The system of school rankings creates a false sense of security that the educations we’re paying for are as meaningful and valuable as we hope them to be. Regardless of where a school falls on a mythical ranking list, if it doesn’t prepare a person to making a living and pursue things like home ownership and starting a family, then it fails the good school test. We should focus less on rankings and more on the broad measure of economic opportunity that enables people the chance to take a bite at their version of the American Dream.

Without a doubt, cost, debt, teacher quality, and the resources a college has all factor in to the kind of educational experience it creates. But we should not discount schools that lack fancy names or highfalutin pedigree if they endow their students with marketable skills that can be used to ensure active economic participation in our society.