America's Worst Colleges
October 15, 2014 5:57 AM   Subscribe

Washington Monthly has attempted to identify America's worst colleges.
posted by COD (76 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating... my son's GF goes to Columbia in Chicago & is trying to transfer out of there.
posted by lotusstp at 6:02 AM on October 15, 2014


Shimer College. Huh. It was my understanding that they were a great books spinoff of U of C.

That's too bad.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:04 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just take it as a given that the for-profit places are largely scams, so I'd love to see the version of this that looked at which private and public non-profit colleges are failing students. (And of course I'd even more love to see regulations and enforcement that seriously cracked down on the terrible schools, but that seems unlikely.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:07 AM on October 15, 2014 [7 favorites]


What is it with Illinois?
posted by Foosnark at 6:08 AM on October 15, 2014


Hmmm. Is it surprising that private schools completely dominate these lists? Maybe we would be better off making it more difficult for private schools, especially for-profits any access to financial aid moneys (and access to captive military populations) and work on stabilizing the public higher education system. Not impossible, but difficult enough to make the profit-minded look elsewhere for their main chance. Education is a bit too important to leave up to the Free Pedagogy of the Market.

In the interests of full disclosure, I work at a public institution, but I have also worked at private schools that were very concerned with providing the best possible education.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:08 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think this is an excellent start on this analysis, but agree it would be nice if they went further with things like separating for profit from non-profit.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:11 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I was glad to see the emphasis on weighing the rankings with regards to minority/low income populations in the latter rankings.
posted by Think_Long at 6:12 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Shimer College. Huh. It was my understanding that they were a great books spinoff of U of C.

I know a few girls who go to Shimer. They take most of their classes at UIC and then have supplemental Shimer hoops to jump through.
posted by phunniemee at 6:16 AM on October 15, 2014


A note about Shimer (disclaimer: from a Shimer College graduate): with between 70 to 150 students, max, from year to year, it really is a totally unique snowflake and comparing it to other schools is next to impossible. The lack of diversity is something Shimer wants to change, but when you consider an incoming class of 30 a great success, you're just fighting for students, plain and simple, no matter their backgrounds. Yes, Shimer costs too much these days, but, interestingly, when the college increased its tuition dramatically in 2007 or so, enrollment went up, at least for a while. The Great Recession, however, has not been kind to it, and my understanding is that faculty are taking a pay cut.

I think putting it on this list without considering its unique situation is bad journalism.

I think the same thing is the case with HBCUs, which struggle with similar financial issues.

The value of an education cannot be measured in money, or in any metric, really. For the kids, often the first in their families history at all that get to go to college at a poor, struggling HBCU, what that represents in terms of accomplishment, self-realization, pride, and personal transformation is, to be cliched, priceless. I'd say the same thing about my expensive and totally unmarketable great books education at Shimer: I wouldn't take it back for all the money in the world, and looking back, I'd go into even more debt to make sure it happened. I'm unemployable, maybe, and debt-ridden, but it was worth it.

Also: what phunniemee is saying about Shimer cannot be true: to graduate you have to take all of the core courses (which are almost the entire curriculum there) and you have to write a thesis. UIC doesn't offer those classes.
posted by dis_integration at 6:21 AM on October 15, 2014 [15 favorites]


The value of an education cannot be measured in money, or in any metric, really. For the kids, often the first in their families histories at all that get to go to college at a poor, struggling HBCU, what that represents in terms of accomplishment, self-realization, pride, and personal transformation is, to be cliched, priceless

Not that I disagree with the importance of HBCUs and their current and historical value, but there is absolutely a quantitative measure for the value of an education. It's dis serving, if not outright damaging, to any group to say that they should pay any price to go to a four-year college.
posted by Think_Long at 6:32 AM on October 15, 2014 [8 favorites]


GenjiandProust : Is it surprising that private schools completely dominate these lists?

Hey! I resemble that remark! :7)

I work at a small, private school in Providence, RI, and we do really well by our students! We have a good retention rate, we are swapping out loans for grants in our FA packages (which may already be done), and we raised our admissions standards some years ago in order to not accept students who we predicted might not make it -- thereby not screwing them from the get-go.

I am proud to work here. We're not diploma mill and we don't prey on GI Bill money on government student loans. I believe and expect that you weren't accusing all private schools of being those things; I just want to make sure that no one thinks we're all scammy. (Just some of us, regrettably. *sigh*)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:35 AM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


The value of an education cannot be measured in money, or in any metric, really. For the kids, often the first in their families history at all that get to go to college at a poor, struggling HBCU, what that represents in terms of accomplishment, self-realization, pride, and personal transformation is, to be cliched, priceless. I'd say the same thing about my expensive and totally unmarketable great books education at Shimer: I wouldn't take it back for all the money in the world, and looking back, I'd go into even more debt to make sure it happened. I'm unemployable, maybe, and debt-ridden, but it was worth it.

Listen, I'm a big fan of education, but you absolutely can put a price on it, and the folks who say otherwise are pulling a snow job.

When you spend over 100k to get a degree that renders you unemployable, you've gotten deeply screwed. That this is disturbingly common right now doesn't make it any less of a rip-off.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2014 [32 favorites]


Meanwhile, tuition in Germany is free, even for Americans. That's what it looks like when a country actually cares about education and students, instead of profits and plugging budget holes off the backs of the young.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:43 AM on October 15, 2014 [19 favorites]


but there is absolutely a quantitative measure for the value of an education.

What could that possibly be? You might say lifetime earned income, but then I wonder what the difference between an education is and the possession of a certificate of pedigree. A WASP who drinks his way through Harvard will do better quantitatively than a poor kid from Mississippi who reads his way through Dillard University... Did the one get a better education than the other?

I'm not saying people should go to college at any cost. College has become way, way, way too expensive. It's really insane what tuition rates are.

My point is that the value of an education and its price are completely disjunct.
posted by dis_integration at 6:43 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?
posted by Area Man at 6:47 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'd say the same thing about my expensive and totally unmarketable great books education at Shimer: I wouldn't take it back for all the money in the world, and looking back, I'd go into even more debt to make sure it happened. I'm unemployable, maybe, and debt-ridden, but it was worth it.

I really want to see this quote highlighted on the next iteration of Shimer's website. Stick it right on the front page. If that sentiment resonates with someone, they are clearly Shimer material.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:49 AM on October 15, 2014 [26 favorites]


but there is absolutely a quantitative measure for the value of an education.

What could that possibly be? You might say lifetime earned income, but then I wonder what the difference between an education is and the possession of a certificate of pedigree.


The article does a pretty good job of laying out the metrics we use: Average loan debt, debt/degree-completion ratio, loan default rate, default rate/graduation rate. If you compare the scammiest for-profit institute to the highest quality community college, those metrics make it glaringly obvious which is the better deal for the students, even though they are both getting a "priceless" education.
posted by Think_Long at 6:50 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also: what phunniemee is saying about Shimer cannot be true: to graduate you have to take all of the core courses (which are almost the entire curriculum there) and you have to write a thesis. UIC doesn't offer those classes.

Yeah, to be clear here I don't have any personal experience with Shimer. All I knew about it was what leotrotsky said above and when I met the kids who go there I asked them what kind of classes they took, etc. They told me most of the classes they were taking at that time were at UIC. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by phunniemee at 6:50 AM on October 15, 2014


My point is that the value of an education and its price are completely disjunct.

Eh, you're going to need to define what you mean by 'value of an education.' This is a bit of the pitch that the humanities professors make, about 'learning how to learn' or 'learning how to reason.' For the most part, it seems like job-justifying buffalo. The best proof of this is that their arguments in favor of the liberal arts are pretty darn weak and wooly. If an English degree were so good at teaching people how to think, you'd think that they could muster better arguments.

I'd argue that any non-income-related intangibles found in a liberal arts degree could also be obtained through a sufficiently dedicated reading and discussion group.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:51 AM on October 15, 2014 [5 favorites]


Not that I disagree with the importance of HBCUs and their current and historical value, but there is absolutely a quantitative measure for the value of an education. It's dis serving, if not outright damaging, to any group to say that they should pay any price to go to a four-year college.

In addition, why shouldn't students at HBCUs demand an education of similar quality to top rank HBCUs such as Fisk and Howard? Some HBCUs have a better record of graduating students at an affordable price than others, and other HBCUs have much worse records.
posted by jonp72 at 6:57 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Philistines, all!

But seriously: the inability to see the inherent worth of education aside from its market value is indicative of a general inability to see the inherent value of anything at all.

Saying education is priceless doesn't mean I don't recognize the concrete ways in which certain educational institutions are just ways of picking the pockets of people who are hoping for a better life.

Shimer, I promise you, is not one of those places. They can barely pay their faculty from year to year.

As I see it, this inability to see the inherent value in education, and chiefly in education in the liberal arts, represents the self-abnegation of humanity. We've given up being human and become something else, more amenable to market forces. And yes, the hyperbole is appropriate.

Ok, end of thread sitting.
posted by dis_integration at 6:59 AM on October 15, 2014 [7 favorites]


"I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?"


Having been a professor for a little while (just five years) I've come to see the value in things like bringing speakers to campus and having non-academic events that give students a chance to form social bonds, etc. . These sorts of of extra- and co-curricular things (like non-curricular undergraduate research) have a real, positive impact on students and educational outcomes. Of course, things like student unions cost money and probably don't count as "no frills."

I don't think no-frills ought to be the goal, but once we allow for extras it becomes increasing difficult to make non-arbitrary judgments about what promotes student success and what is unnecessary.
posted by oddman at 7:01 AM on October 15, 2014 [5 favorites]


but there is absolutely a quantitative measure for the value of an education.

I think there are some quantitative measures, but I doubt you can encapsulate the higher education experience in a set of metrics. For one, college is the first place many students experience people and ideas outside of their comfort zone, and this can be an extremely formative experience (for good or ill) -- I don't know how you would measure that, but it's pretty clear that it happens.

wenestvedt; I definitely do not dismiss all private schools; some of the best colleges and universities in the US are private schools (and at their scale, the line between for-profit and nonprofit gets a little blurry; should universities act as landlords while they are waiting to demolish housing for their next inevitable expansion? However, I am not at all surprised to see private schools all over these lists, because they are less accountable than public schools, and I do think that public money should always go first to public institutions as a matter of policy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:03 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Private school tuition translates into higher expectations, as well as greater potential harm to students who are not receiving a greater-value education at a public school. I don't doubt that many private schools are run by essentially sincere people who are not trying to scam their students, and that those students will have wonderful experiences at those school. That said, it's a load of hogwash to say a student, especially a poor student, couldn't also have an equally wonderful experience at a quality public school. There need to be more and better public schools; there need to be fewer private schools. That's just the way it is.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:08 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not quite understanding the fourth ranking - is it saying that these schools don't have very many minority students, and the minority students that are enrolled have a relatively high amount of debt? (Sorry if this is obvious, I'm hopped up on Sudafed right now.) The reason I ask is that I'm surprised to see MSOE (Milwaukee School of Engineering) on any kind of "worst" list (USNews ranking for comparison), but a low proportion of minority students would make sense.
posted by desjardins at 7:14 AM on October 15, 2014


Just because 'an education has inherent worth', doesn't mean we should beggar people for life in order to give it to them. Just repeating "but knowledge is PRICELESS" is what allows colleges to relentlessly gouge young men and women without them asking "wait, is this actually worth it to me? Could there be a better choice?"
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:24 AM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?"

Let me introduce you to a recently founded public liberal arts college in Georgia that is attempting to do that.

I applied to work at Shimer, and I would have loved to work there if I could have found a way to live off the salary. It made me sad to see them on the list, and I agree with dis_integration that it's really hard to compare them with any other school on earth.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:36 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


hydropsyche: You aren't kidding! "Full tuition is capped at less than $1,775 per semester."
posted by leotrotsky at 7:45 AM on October 15, 2014


I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?

This is called "community college" and its as close as the US comes to making education accessible for all, as it is in other countries.

Support your local community college.
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:46 AM on October 15, 2014 [34 favorites]


It looks like art schools are particularly malignant.

Bump that first list up to 50 entries and I suspect my alma mater would've made the cut.
posted by dgaicun at 7:53 AM on October 15, 2014


"Fountainhead College", really! I would not have predicted that just by looking at the name! Sarcasm!
posted by Wolfdog at 7:56 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


It looks like art schools are particularly malignant.

I had no idea so many people could draw Tippy the Turtle.
posted by Think_Long at 7:57 AM on October 15, 2014 [10 favorites]


I spent a year and a half at Columbia and in retrospect I'm kind of glad I was asked to leave (anxiety; at the time, their mental health treatment policy was "pack your shit and go").
posted by Merzbau at 8:02 AM on October 15, 2014


Foosnark: "What is it with Illinois?"

Midstate College is on there, and it's basically a place to get certified in medical support stuff (medical coding, medical office management, health information technology) or do pre-nursing requirements. We have two gigantic hospitals in town and jobs are disproportionately in the medical field locally; Midstate provides certifications for the coding stuff, and the overflow from the community college pre-nursing program (which isn't large enough, really). I think their "degrees" (BBA, BA) are pretty scammy and very expensive, but I'm not sure I actually know anyone who got a DEGREE there, and everyone I know who did their pre-nursing there or got a certificate/diploma was happy with the experience. They made it very convenient for working parents and they offer both sped up programs for people who want to get into the job market as fast as possible, and slowed down programs for people who can only do a class or two at a time. Until they started adding degrees, they were pretty much doing exactly what for-profits do reasonably well: filling a gap in the market with a pretty direct pipeline to employers at a cost commensurate with the salary students could expect to receive. I mean basically a beauty school, but for medical coding.

I assume the federal money in offering "degrees" was too attractive not to make a grab for. I'd be sort-of curious to know who enrolls for their degrees there, and how many of them transfer out to one of the other (cheaper, better) local colleges or to the community college. Like are they just jump-starting at Midstate for convenience? Or are people actually enrolling for a degree there?

DeVry is a trade school of very long standing -- it dates back to 1931 -- but had an IPO some time in the 90s, began offering non-trade-type degrees, and that's when it seems to have picked up a lot of its scamminess. I wonder if you can still do Diesel Engine Maintenance there (from the DeVry commercials of my youth ...) or if it's all fakey business degrees now.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:08 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


hydropsyche, I know that Georgia Gwinnett College does not offer tenure but rather "renewable contracts." The job market in many fields is such that I am sure that they have more than enough applicants for academic jobs, but that still gives me pause.
posted by dhens at 8:11 AM on October 15, 2014


It looks like art schools are particularly malignant.

Every time I see colleges ranked by "most valuable degrees" or anything of that sort, which is a major component of this analysis (because two of the factors are based on whether a student gets a high-paying job after graduation), the schools that have large engineering enrollment go to the top and art schools go to the bottom. It's really unfair - they should compare the value of similar degrees at different schools. I'd love to know the default rate on an art degree from Columbia versus an art degree from, say, the University of Illinois. You can't just lump all of a college's offerings together because that creates several confounding factors.
posted by LSK at 8:21 AM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


I am shocked, shocked, that three Vermont schools do not do well in diversity.

They're private schools, so I suppose there's no excuse, but I'm not sure how a low ranked school in Vermont (or upstate NY - IIRC, Paul Smith's College specializes in outdoor tourism type of stuff [like hiking guides and forest management] and is considered decent for that) is meant to attract a diverse student body. I don't mean that they shouldn't try, mind you. But in VT, attracting an ethnically diverse student body means importing students. I'm not sure what would attract them.

Please understand that I say this as someone who grew up in VT and went to the city for college - I can't understand why someone would choose to spend four years in Paul Smith's or Poultney. I also know that there are probably many schools in rural white areas that do a better job with diversity.

Meanwhile, Goddard's response to being included on this list should be interesting.
posted by maryr at 8:23 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


What I really want to know is what I think we all expected this article to talk about - what colleges offer the weakest educational programs? What colleges have systemic administrative problems? What colleges have the least satisfied students? This article is beating around the bush here.
posted by LSK at 8:24 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


Actually, the inclusion of Green Mountain College and Paul Smith's College is especially interesting because both focus on agricultural or natural resource based disciplines that would keep the student in the Northeast. If you don't want to live in rural parts of the Northeast, these schools are a terrible choice. I wonder how that effects their diversity efforts.
posted by maryr at 8:28 AM on October 15, 2014


I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?

Well, there's community college for the first two years. I consider myself real faculty, although we do not have time or rewards for research. Many of our faculty are people who probably would have taught at a four-year college or university if the academic job market hadn't collapsed. So I don't think these students are necessarily getting a second-rate education because so many talented scholars and teachers are turning to community colleges - a job path that was (and still is) seen as failure by many PhD programs.

Speaking for myself, I didn't complete my PhD because I didn't want to relocate to wherever was necessary to get a faculty position, even if I were lucky enough to land one. And I've come to strongly believe in our mission, given the insane costs of college tuition. I see so many students working multiple jobs, taking care of family members, trying to integrate back in civilian life after military deployment - I don't want them to get any more financially screwed than they already are, when they're just doing what everyone tells them to do if they want to be a productive member of society.

We either need to admit that college degrees are not necessary for everyone, or we need to make them accessible for everyone. I suspect, however, that the powers that be in our country have a lot to gain by keeping its citizens in debt for most of their lives.
posted by bibliowench at 8:31 AM on October 15, 2014 [9 favorites]


As a Shimer grad, I will admit this enrages me. But I also have to recognize that we're on this list for the same reason that we occasionally end up at or near the top of "best" colleges on metrics like Ph.D. attainment: we're just too small, and with too much year-to-year variation, for these kinds of lists to make much sense. Our position on the list basically ends up being a matter of random chance, and evidently this wasn't our lucky year.

I guess I'm on my third professional career at this point, and while Shimer didn't "prepare" me for any of those jobs, it gave me tools that have been indispensable to my success in each of them, and those tools have allowed me to do things that most people without a Shimer education just can't. To take just one example, I could never have learned to translate Korean semiconductor patents -- with no formal training, at the time, in any obviously relevant field -- without the extraordinary self-teaching skills that the Shimer method imparts.
posted by shenderson at 8:41 AM on October 15, 2014 [10 favorites]


I am shocked, shocked, that three Vermont schools do not do well in diversity. They're private schools, so I suppose there's no excuse, but I'm not sure how a low ranked school in Vermont (or upstate NY - IIRC, Paul Smith's College specializes in outdoor tourism type of stuff [like hiking guides and forest management] and is considered decent for that) is meant to attract a diverse student body.

The reason that they're included on the last list isn't that they're not diverse. It's that their students are ending up saddled with debt and without a degree, and that they cost altogether too much — and that the populations they're serving are not, demographically, ones that have historically had problems with access to education. The difference between the third list and the last list is, effectively, that HBCUs are doing yeomen's work in serving these disadvantaged populations and so shouldn't be penalized for serving this purpose.

In other words, the Vermont schools aren't being penalized for non-diverse populations; the HBCUs are being rewarded for serving disadvantaged populations. A fine distinction, to be sure, but I think it's an important one to make.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:50 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. Is it surprising that private schools completely dominate these lists?

No, but not for the reasons I think most people would expect. There are lots and lots of public schools out there that (because of something the college does wrong, or because they draw heavily from students unlikely to succeed anywhere, or some combination) have results somewhere between undistinguished and just plain bad. The difference is that public schools are less likely to be completely tuition-dependent, so they're a cheaper path to the same quality education.

Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?

I expect the limit on how no-frills a college can be is pretty high. You have student records, so you need somebody doing FERPA compliance. You have some sort of IT, so you need IT people, who need to be connected with the FERPA people/person or otherwise have FERPA training. I wouldn't be surprised if accreditors require some sort of student health facility. The old Catholic high school probably requires nontrivial retrofitting to be handicapped-accessible. Repeat for a hundred other concerns.

The ones that probably could do a better job of it are branch campuses of larger universities, where some of these costs can be borne by the main university.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?"

Let me introduce you to a recently founded public liberal arts college in Georgia that is attempting to do that.


And also Southern New Hampshire University; tuition $10,000/year.
posted by Melismata at 9:05 AM on October 15, 2014


In other words, the Vermont schools aren't being penalized for non-diverse populations; the HBCUs are being rewarded for serving disadvantaged populations. A fine distinction, to be sure, but I think it's an important one to make.

A good point. Additionally, there are other Vermont colleges that are not on that list. One school, St. Joseph's, is actively trying to lower costs for accessibility, it seems.
posted by maryr at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2014




I get that it sucks that your institution ended up on the list, but it doesn't seem like it's because of a subjective choice or category to include it. Not sure why it's bad journalism because of that, I mean those are the numbers enraging or no. It could be and I'm sure is a great place to get a great books education, but that's not what they were looking at and thems the breaks.
posted by Carillon at 9:49 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


I live a block away from Menlo College. That's a bummer to hear...it would be easy to go for a class or two.
posted by Chuffy at 10:11 AM on October 15, 2014


I'm a recent Goddard grad, not terribly shocked that the college scores low in diversity. Fwiw though, all the programs are low-residency now (they shut down residency in the early 2000s) so students only live in rural Vermont for 8 days every semester. They come from all across the US and from other countries as well. And I think the low graduation rates can also be attributed to the non-traditional education aspect. Individualized, distance learning isn't for everyone, and many students don't return after trying it for a semester. It's also not unusual for people to take a semester or two off to focus on real life.

But yeah, rising tuition is definitely a problem, as are disputes between administration and faculty over pay cuts. That being said, Goddard is such a great, one of a kind school with fierce devotion to progressive ideals. It's a shame they're struggling so much to stay afloat.
posted by book 'em dano at 10:55 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Both my parents attended Shimer when it was still semi-affiliated with the University of Chicago (where they got their degrees). Note that that association only lasted a few decades in the middle of the 20th, but that Shimer retained the Great Books curriculum while U of C has evolved.

There are some other interesting and relevant aspects here. Its original campus -- it had begun as a women's college, and during the era when NW Illinois was a hotbed of mining and Mississippi River commerce -- was sold and the college relocated first to Waukegan, more recently to the campus of UIC, hence the association. This was largely a result of baby-boom expansion in education, with the college having taken out federal loans to build dorms and (I think ultimately) quadruple its enrollment, a gamble that did not pay off and put the college deeply into red ink. (It was not alone; the tiny Milton College closer to my home also failed in part due to a similar fiscal cliff.) There's a real cautionary tale there as far as means of financing higher education and who carries the risk.

I came pretty close to applying, but then Beloit accepted me as a transfer student and that was that. I'm reasonably sure that the alums above are right and it may not be fair to just rank it with other schools, especially diploma mills -- there's hardly a place like it on earth, really, and it's probably the closest you will get in the 21st century to what the 19th century college experience was like. Still, one of the things that seems neat about the Great Books in principle is one of the things I'm really glad I didn't get myself constrained into, as I'm now much more of a bust-the-canon post-modernist, and I worry about the current very close sympathies between the curriculum and retrograde conservative ideas about education. To be fair, the college faculty and students have been fighting this connection, as they don't want to become a sort of smarter Liberty University, or a Rockford University with actual academic cachet, but it's a fascinating thing to watch -- from the outside.

Anyway, enough about that. The talk about community colleges brings me to the UW System, which harkens back to the original concept of the Wisconsin Idea, i.e. the boundaries of the state are the boundaries of the university. There used to be several different parts, with the teacher's colleges eventually becoming just satellite campuses of a Madison-centered system, but the two-year colleges are spread around the state and serve primarily an adult education function. They're still affordable as college goes (per-credit costs below $200), and some of them even offer residential plans and specialized four-year degrees. There is also a slightly lower (more no-frills) tier of technical colleges that have expanded their own offerings. But the state is increasingly reluctant to subsidize them, and tuition is rising with enrollment being pared back (there was a lot of stimulus-funded activity, and locally we had TAA funds because we lost our GM plant). I think you get an education and it has some value but in neither case is it really equivalent of a liberal arts education, nor do most of the students in those programs want that.
posted by dhartung at 11:42 AM on October 15, 2014 [7 favorites]


GenjiandProust: However, I am not at all surprised to see private schools all over these lists, because they are less accountable than public schools…

Oh, totally: it's pretty much the defining characteristic!

And in a way, I think this very feature allows some institutions to do things that maybe a public school shouldn't be trying, like the Great Books school, St. John's (among whose alumni I count a very good friend, and also my high school physics teacher), or my own employer whose programs focus on professional subjects with an academic bent.

For example, our culinary program used to crank out focused, high-end chefs and cafeteria-line food service types. In the past few years our faculty have started adding emphases on local ingredients and nutritional planning to the food service type subjects, and more-business-ey ideas about portion control to the purist chef de cuisine material. And it is really improving the education that both groups of students are receiving.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:45 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Southern New Hampshire University is interesting, but five years later, I think their focus is their massive online program (built on a structure of plugging in adjuncts at very low fees). Their latest model is one of the programs that judges "competencies" but involves no actual classwork/lectures/professors. The costs for a student at their main institution (I don't see an option for the low-cost program but maybe it's in a different section) is still $30,000 a year, plus fees, housing, and food. Even that satellite school probably relied on being subsidized by having access to the library (subscriptions! really expensive!), IT department (hahahah so expensive) and other backend admin stuff that higher education basically demands. The $10,000 degrees so desired by Rick Perry are similarly, I think, often relying on subsidization from other programs (or credits gained in high school, or just straight up financial aid).

Anyway, I think this is an interesting list in part because Washington Monthly's original list of Best Colleges has a very different focus than most Best College lists. What it prioritizes (and what it probably penalizes) are not going to be the same as other lists.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:56 AM on October 15, 2014


A brief note about Shimer. In 2009, when I was taking classes at one of the Chicago City Colleges, my 4.0 GPA in English gave me the opportunity to take classes at Shimer for the same price as taking classes at the city college.

I dropped out after that semester, and I regret never taking a class at Shimer.

So it is possible that someone in the IL state/city college system is taking classes at Shimer. They won't graduate from there, but they could be taking classes.
posted by bibliogrrl at 12:12 PM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


But seriously: the inability to see the inherent worth of education aside from its market value is indicative of a general inability to see the inherent value of anything at all.

No, it's indicative of the inability to see the value of getting yourself in debt up to your eyeballs for 50 years and having nothing to show for it.
posted by jonp72 at 12:32 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


One question is why privately run colleges should be exempt from property and other local taxes. This is a taxpayer subsidy that is effectively a transfer of funds from public colleges to private colleges. Private colleges, since they want to maintain their privacy and exclusivity, should pay their own way.
posted by JackFlash at 1:06 PM on October 15, 2014


Yeah, DeVry has always had a questionable aura to me, based in part on its changing its name every so often and in part on buying up other for-profit schools. When I lived in Chicago, they were known as the "DeVry Institute of Technology", probably to impress people with an implicit comparison to the Illinois Institute of Technology, even though the latter had a campus partly designed by Mies van der Rohe, who was also head of the school of architecture for a while. In addition to its dropout rate, DeVry also has a habit of being sued by its students. Columbia College (Chicago) seems to turn out a lot of people in the performing arts, so you may have a mix of people that dropped out before they got their degrees because they got jobs versus people who defaulted on their loans because they didn't.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:45 PM on October 15, 2014


Area Man: I keep hearing about two trends: (1) lots of unemployed or underemployed folks with Ph.Ds and (2) ever-increasing tuition. Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?

This seems like an obvious idea, but it's tricky in implementation:

A lot of the ballooning cost in administration is waste or corruption, but not all of it. A good chunk of it is legal compliance or reporting requirements. So you're not going to be able to reduce your administrative costs to those of the 'old days'. Similarly, students have higher expectations for things like switching class sections, greater class availability, and online access. Those increase administrative requirements, too.

You have to have an IT department these days. Students need to be able to conduct their administrative tasks online, they'll want you to move some elements of their classes online (at least turning in assignments) and you need to teach at least some computer classes to have any relevance at all.

You need lab facilities to teach sciences at all, and you need better ones the more advanced the classes you're going to teach. You need fairly advanced equipment to teach labs for four-year degrees. Also, you kind of need a research program to teach science at anything above the community college level. It's severely limiting for students to not have opportunities for undergraduate research at the four-year level, and you can't teach graduate school at all.

Also, not having a research program will severely limit your ability to attract good faculty. You don't need research to get good community-college level faculty, because you don't need subject experts to teach lower-level classes, but you do need them to teach higher-level ones. A graduate student or someone with a master's (or in a pinch, a strong candidate with a bachelor's degree) can teach an intro-level science. To teach a 400-level science, it's best to have someone with a doctorate. Preferably someone experienced. And it's tough to get them without a research program, because teaching without doing research will damage their career (also, they'll experience skill decay and become non-current if they're not doing research or industry work).

This is also a problem for some other technical fields (including engineering) and some kinds of art. You have to have the equipment to do something to teach it properly.

So, ultimately, it could sort of work but not for all degrees. Community college already mostly works the way you say, at least in some places. Universities could work more like that if they wanted (mostly by getting rid of varsity sports and some of the unnecessary administrators and facilities) but can't get rid of research and still teach all of the things they teach now, at least not without losing a lot in the quality department. So universities could be made somewhat cheaper, but not as cheap as community colleges.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:41 PM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


I was as surprised as anyone to see the University of Winnipeg on that list.
posted by clvrmnky at 3:44 PM on October 15, 2014


I wonder if they're counting international students in any of those metrics. International students don't qualify for student loans (at least not American ones), can't do part-time unless it's a very special circumstance, and may not want to drop out because it'll cost them their visa. A lot of times international students are paying much higher fees than locals; my grad school in SF was unusual in that it offered international students a discount. (They still have to pay fees in the famously-no-fee Europe; Finland's the only place I've seen where no-fees also applies to international students. Shoulda gone there.)

If they are also counting international students, their numbers are going to be pretty skewed in terms of job rates. If they move back home to work, they'll be earning money at a different currency with a different standard of living. If they stay in the US, temporarily or for good, they may have trouble finding jobs to match their earning potential simply because they're international (as I am learning for myself).

You're not going to see a lot of international students at some of the smaller or more obscure schools simply because they don't do as much marketing and they don't have the same "prestige" as, say, Harvard or Stanford (in cultures where if you're going to study overseas it has to be in a Top School - I was an outlier weirdo). And you're not going to see a ton of them in programs like the arts and humanities partly because post-grad visas don't really support them like they do STEM degrees, the jobs are more difficult to obtain even without the foreigner factor, and again they lose on the 'prestige'.

Without this delienation the statistics are way off.
posted by divabat at 4:34 PM on October 15, 2014


You have student records, so you need somebody doing FERPA compliance. You have some sort of IT, so you need IT people, who need to be connected with the FERPA people/person or otherwise have FERPA training.

You would think so, but not so much. Know what happened at Hudson Valley Community College when I tried to address the material violations of the College's Information Security Policy that's the foundation of the FERPA compliance you're talking about?

The Information Security Officer responsible for compliance had me fired for trying to get the required change management tools, and for not helping cover up her misconduct. So, there are a lot of requirements on paper, but as far as good faith efforts? Nope. Not in my experience.
posted by mikelieman at 4:51 PM on October 15, 2014


International students do get financial aid at a lot of institutions-- my alma mater offers financial aid to an equal percentage of international students and American students. While working on a project researching international students and outreach, I was surprised to find that many state schools (smaller branches-- even commuter branches) are dealing with large influxes of international students, from a very large range of countries. I don't know if there are statistics on international student default rates, or if those would only show up in terms of their cosigners. I think at some point the metrics will have to consider and adjust to changing student bodies, not that I think a lot of the current ranking metrics are worth a damn anyway.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:11 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


jelagaddict: eh really? I know scholarships and grants exist aplenty, but tthat's a very different thing to US student loans which are IME only available to citizens and PRs.
posted by divabat at 5:36 PM on October 15, 2014


(Financial aid also include scholarships and grants, not just loans. Part of the reason some places pressure you to do the Ivies is their reputation for full rides.)
posted by divabat at 5:38 PM on October 15, 2014


I don't know what the exact makeup of the packages is, although I do know they often include work study (maybe not federal work study?) but yes, there are definitely large financial aid packages for international students. International students with family/friend ties in the states can also get loans if they have a citizen co-signer, but like I said, I don't know what percentage of students use that option.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:20 PM on October 15, 2014


this thread makes me want to donate to Shimer.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:48 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


a note about HBCUs that doesn't seem to have been addressed above: even with the inclusion of big names like Morehouse or Spelman, a huge number of students at the HBCUs (a majority at many of them) are first-generation college students.

First-generation students? Especially broke ones? Not your best bet academically for finishing in four years.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:55 PM on October 15, 2014


Has anyone tried setting up a sort of no-frills college? Somewhere with real faculty, classrooms (maybe in buildings that used to be a catholic highschool), a library, and almost nothing else?

If by "anyone", you mean "Germany", yeah, and there's another advantage to going there.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:02 PM on October 15, 2014


I moved to the US right after graduating, and after 6 years it is still beyond me that people my age have a house's worth of student debt and are as qualified as I am.

I am not from a developed country, but my degree was totally funded by the government (as is everybody's except people who want to go to private school), and I got three meals a day for free and 50% discount in public transportation and cultural events just for being a student.

Having to pay for university is to me as bizarre as having to pay for police services. It just feels wrong. This country is supposed to be more developed than my South American country, I can't imagine how I would sleep at night with such ridiculous debt hanging over me. I can take whatever job I want as long as it pays my rent. I have an unfair advantage over American graduates.
posted by Tarumba at 7:06 PM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


The problem that the article is looking at isn't so much "are these schools creating employable graduates," which has been the tone of the discussion here, it's about "these schools are creating large numbers of debt-ridden NOT-graduates." It sucks to have 20k of debt and a college degree. It sucks way way way way way more to have 20k of debt and NO degree, having accrued that non-dischargeable debt with mandatory core classes on how to balance your checkbook.

This ranking isn't about "is a liberal arts education valuable," it's about "these are schools who functionally treat students as Pell grant income and seem consider it irrelevant if those students get a diploma, or if the diploma that those who graduate get signifies anything at all." There's no return desk, you can't take your incomplete transcript back for a refund. Its an obvious scam but many students don't feel like they have a choice.

The Federal government is trying to prevent another recession when this bubble blows up by creating higher standards for grants, and thank you, probably won't work but our country literally will not be able to afford the consequences of not trying. It's worse than the mortgage bubble for individuals, you can walk away from your house but if you have student loans your paychecks will be garnished forever.

We made "college diploma" the new "high school diploma" but forgot the "free" part that historically has gone along with "compulsory education" in the US.
posted by ProtoStar at 8:06 PM on October 15, 2014 [5 favorites]


I did work study as part of my grad school - as an international student I was restricted to 20 hours a week max on minimum wage. You can apply for CPT, which lets you work on something related to your degree while you're studying, but you have to prove that the job is required for your program (e.g. internships or practicum). I did this my final year as my MFA project.

Big financial aid packages for international students aren't common and tend to exist more in the larger schools. I looked into studying at places like Reed or Emerson for my Bachelor's (before opting for Australia, which is WORSE for int student costs) and they all said they don't fund international students and the federal student loans don't apply to me.

I've been an international student twice over, I've investigated this thoroughly, I know what I'm talking about.

(I'm currently looking at coding bootcamps and a bunch of them suggest getting financing from Upstart. Upstart immediately rejected me because I'm not a citizen or permanent resident, and from looking around it seems they're not unusual in that.)
posted by divabat at 8:43 PM on October 15, 2014


I moved to the US right after graduating, and after 6 years it is still beyond me that people my age have a house's worth of student debt and are as qualified as I am.

People with a house worth of debt from a bachelor's degree exist but there are not very many of them. Your common or garden variety public-university student graduates with somewhere between $0 (about 40% of students) and $10k in debt. Even a used-car's-worth of debt sucks as a way to start adult life, but is a small fraction of what you're imagining.

Or you live here in Buffalo, where you can buy a $10k house if you really want to. Protip: Don't.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:51 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


If by "anyone", you mean "Germany", yeah, and there's another advantage to going there.

German universities sound remarkably like urban Canadian universities: places where people commute in, go to class, go home. I think my university had a sports centre, but I couldn't have told you where it was. (The Library - that I had memorised, of course, a long with the cheapest on-campus food options).
posted by jb at 9:18 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


I looked into studying at places like Reed or Emerson for my Bachelor's (before opting for Australia, which is WORSE for int student costs) and they all said they don't fund international students and the federal student loans don't apply to me.

That wasn't the case when I was a student so I just checked both websites – Emerson gives merit aid to some international students but doesn't specify details, and Reed funds about 10 to 20 percent of international students. (And of course as you note federal funds are not available, so the colleges are limited to their own funding.) Emerson has a tiny endowment so can't afford to offer much aid to anyone; Reed has a decent but not huge endowment so it can fund only that portion of the international students; and places like Amherst with huge endowments can be fully need blind to international students. As with all things college-related in the US, the more elite the institution, the more generous they can be and the more support they offer their students.

By and large international students are seen as attractive applicants for colleges here, especially tuition-dependent private schools with smaller endowments and public schools facing reduced state funding, because most are from wealthy families that can pay full tuition; I also know of some European students who are able to use funding from their own governments but I don't know how common that is or what the restrictions are.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:59 AM on October 16, 2014


Your common or garden variety public-university student graduates with somewhere between $0 (about 40% of students) and $10k in debt.

Where are you getting this number from? I'm not disputing the percentage that don't borrow, but those who do have average numbers way higher than $10k, high enough that I don't think you can really say that's the norm. There are only four states in the country in which the average student loan debt of a 2012 bachelor's graduate from a public university is under $20,000: New Mexico, Utah, California, and Hawaii, and their numbers are still $17/18/19k. (And the likelihood is that underreporting means all these numbers are lower than reality; see the last link below.) In my home state, the average debt of a public university bachelor's graduate who borrowed is over $30,000. That's not a house, but it's not a few thousand bucks either.

State by state data broken down by public or private institution is available at CollegeInsight or The Project for Student Loan Debt, with info on the data and its limitations here.
posted by shiosai at 6:45 AM on October 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Your common or garden variety public-university student graduates with somewhere between $0 (about 40% of students) and $10k in debt.

Ha. Ha. Maybe 20 years ago. Where are all these mystical colleges that cost $1250 a semester for classes plus room and board? Sure wish I'd known about those before I went to UNC (the "best value" apparently) and graduated with $40K in debt.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:24 AM on October 16, 2014


Where are you getting this number from?

NCES but I forget which report/link.

I'm not disputing the percentage that don't borrow, but those who do have average numbers way higher than $10k

Right, but if you want to know how indebted the average student is (I was looking at the median), you need to factor in that ~40% of $0. About 40% of students had $0 debt, and the median student was in the $5-10k band.

It also showed clear movement in the wrong direction; until recently-ish (1980-something or 1990-something) the debt of the median student at a public university was $0, which has to be the case if more than 50% graduate without debt.

Ha. Ha. Maybe 20 years ago.

Again, I forget which report/data I was looking at, but it was from somewhere in 2005-2010.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:48 AM on October 16, 2014


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