Saturday, September 05, 2009

We Cleaned Their Clocks On a Worthless Ranking...And We Couldn't Be Prouder

As I promised in an earlier post, I do have more to say about the Washington Monthly National University Rankings, although it is getting increasingly difficult for me to get worked up over rankings such as the these which most likely don't drive policy at universities. But when The Old Main Propaganda Shop issues a boastful and immature response like this one, it gets a little bit easier to get worked up.
The rest of the Big Ten also fared well in Washington Monthly's rankings. Following Penn State were University of Michigan, ranked No. 18; Ohio State University, No. 20; University of Illinois, No. 24; University of Wisconsin, No. 30; Michigan State University, No. 34; Northwestern University, No. 39; Purdue University, No. 48; University of Minnesota, No. 50; University of Iowa, No. 64; and Indiana University, No. 83.

Nine other Pennsylvania schools also made the list, although only four made the top 100: University of Pittsburgh, ranked No. 43; University of Pennsylvania, No. 59; Carnegie Mellon University, No. 75; and Widener University, No. 85.
The Bullshit Artists in the Propaganda Shop wanted everyone to know that Dear Ole State cleaned the clocks of its rivals, so they decided to "praise" the solid, but not as good showing, of these other schools. If you doubt this was their motivation, consider that a couple of years ago Penn State Hershey Medical Center was ranked thirty out of 50 hospitals by USN&WR in one category of pediatric care. UPenn and UPMC cleaned Hershey's clock, but The Old Main Propaganda Shop didn't see fit to congratulate these schools for their fine showing.

Anyway, back to the Washington Monthly. These rankings are supposed to measure the schools contributions to the public good. The overall ranking is based on three composite measures of public good, Social Mobility, Research, and Service. The ranking on Social Mobility is based on two factors, the percentage of students with Pell Grants and the differential between predicted six year graduation rate and actual six year graduation rate. The predicted rate is based on a model which takes into account the percentage of students on Pell Grants and average SAT scores. The ranking on Research is based on five factors, the total number of research dollars; the number of graduates with bachelors degrees that go on to received Ph. D.'s , this year corrected for school size; the number of STEM Ph.D.'s awarded, percentage of faculty with significant awards and percentage of faculty in the National Academies. The ranking on Service is based on three factors, the number of alumni who serve in the Peace Corp, the percentage of students in ROTC and the percentage of funds in federal work-study money that goes to community service.

Whether these rankings are a valid measure of public good is worthy debate to be have, but is not the one that I want to have here. You can go over to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog to engage in that debate. The question that interests me is why does Penn State rank so high?

You can sort the results by each of three composite measures. What you will find is that while Penn State ranks 7th overall, it does no better than 12th in any of these measures. Penn States ranks are:Social Mobility 12, Research 26 , Service 25.

On Research, Penn State ranks fairly high on measures of intensity. It ranks fourteenth on expenditures and number of students receiving Ph.D.'s in STEM fields. However, on measures of quality, it ranks fairly low. It ranks 57th on both number of bachelor recipients to receive Ph.D.s, corrected for school size, and percentage of faculty receiving significant awards. On percentage of faculty in National Academies it ranks fifty-fifth. The additions of quality measures is new to this year's ranking and I have to wonder if their addition is responsible for Penn State falling from 3rd to 7th place in the overall ranking. I can't answer this question because last year's rankings aren't online any more due to a problem with data integrity discovered by the magazine. More on that below.

On Service, Penn State ranks on the factors that make up the composite measure as follows: Peace Corp 79th, ROTC 37th and Work-study 23rd. Not much to see here.

This brings me to Social Mobility which clearly is what drives Penn State in to the top ten schools on the overall ranking and something ain't right here. Anyone who has spent any time in Happy Valley over the past fifteen years knows that the Main Campus of Penn State is increasingly populated by upper middle class and upper class students. It's gotten so bad that the University Faculty Senate issued a report a couple years ago on Access and Affordability. It did not paint a pretty picture.

Then there is the 2006 report from Education Trust, Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equality in the Nation's Premier Public Universities, which I blogged about at the time. Penn State received and overall grade of an F and an F on low income access. The Old Main Propaganda Shop wasn't happy.

The grade on low income access was based on the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at the University Park campus in 2004 which stood at 18.0%, according to the report, compared to 33.6the% of all college students in Pennsylvania with Pell Grant that year. The report also noted a trend toward less access at the Main Campus of Penn State. In 1992, the percentage of students with Pell Grants at the flagship campus was 22.2% compared to 27.7% overall in Pennsylvania.

Washington Monthly has the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Penn State in 2008 as 25%. Has the University dramatically improved low income access to the Main Campus in the last four years? It is highly unlikely.

The Education Department keeps track of this statistic. For 2008, the total number of recipients of Pell Grants at all campuses of Penn State stood at 16,707 or roughly 25% of system-wide enrollment. (You can download the Excel file here.) That percentage is very likely to be lower at University Park and higher at the branch campuses.

Unfortunately, the most recent data on Pell Grant with a campus breakdown from the National Center for Educational Statistics is 2006. It shows substantial inequality amongst the campuses from a high of 63% at the Shenango campus in northwestern Pennsylvania to a low of 14% at the University Park, the flagship campus. However, the percentage of students with Pell Grants at the University Park campus has been very stable around 15% from 1999 through 2006, hence it is likely that the current percentage is significantly lower than the 25% system-wide number used by the Washington Monthly.

You can find a comparison to the other Big Ten schools plus Berkeley for 2006 here.

I think that it is reasonable to concluded that the Washington Monthly over estimated the percentage of Penn State University Park students on Pell Grants, consequently Penn State's ranking has been driven up on Social Mobility because this percentage is used directly in the Social Mobility measure, as well, indirectly in determining the predicted graduation rate.

The higher the Pell Grant percentage the lower the predicted graduation rate. The Penn State predicted graduation rate based on the system-wide Pell Grant number is 66%. But the actual graduation rate used by Washington Monthly is not the system-wide number, it is the University Park number of 84% which is much higher than at the branch campuses. The rate at Shenago, for example,with its 63% of students with Pell Grant is 34.1%. Therefore the graduation rate differential for University Park is likely overestimated by the Washington Monthly.

It is clear that a rank of three for Penn State on the basis of the predicted to actual graduation rate is flat out wrong and if this calculation were done properly Penn State would drop out of the top ten schools and likely drop out of the top twenty.

As I noted above, last year's rankings are no longer posted on line. The reason is that an incorrect number was used for the percentage of Texas A&M students with Pell Grants which botched up the whole thing. So aside from whether or not these rankings are valid measure of the public good, it clear that they can't be trusted to be correct on their own terms and are, therefore, totally worthless.

Finally, certainly the folks in The Old Main Propaganda Shop know about the flaw in Penn State's ranking, but I haven't heard a peep from them about it. What does that teach the young'ns about character?

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