What are colleges for?

The Washington Monthly published a wonderful “College Ranking” study this month (its 2nd annual) that asks an interesting question–and makes me wonder why nobody asked this before: what are colleges and universities for? In other words, if college rankings are so important–what are we ranking these institutions on?

What are reasonable indicators of how much a school is benefiting the country? We came up with three: how well it performs as an engine of social mobility (ideally helping the poor to get rich rather than the very rich to get very, very rich), how well it does in fostering scientific and humanistic research, and how well it promotes an ethic of service to country. We then devised a way to measure and quantify these criteria (See “A Note on Methodology“).

Such an obvious question…in hindsight. And it turns out that asking the question this way gives you a ranking that barely matches the traditional rankings. While the other yardsticks describe the advantages that go to students attending particular schools, they miss the true contribution of the particular schools to those advantages.

Huh? To bite on my argument, you need to first buy the difference between intellectual capital and social capital. Simply put, intellectual capital is what you know, social capital is who you know. Some people are smart, others are well-connected (and some are both). Who wins in the end? You probably can guess the answer. There is hope that the best people become the best connected, but there is hope of winning the lottery too.

The study hit home for me because I had just read a wonderful post by Clarence Fisher on how computers and the internet (and internet blogging) reduces the distance from rural schools to the kind of social connections traditionally found only in metropolitan areas. Clarence cited an Economist article, The Invisible Hand on the Keyboard, that wondered why academics blog. A tangential point in the article is the diminishing benefit of connections that top schools provide as the ability to communicate easily across distance took hold:

With professors spending so much time blogging for no payment, universities might wonder whether this detracts from their value. Although there is no evidence of a direct link between blogging and publishing productivity, a new study* by E. Han Kim and Adair Morse, of the University of Michigan, and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, shows that the internet’s ability to spread knowledge beyond university classrooms has diminished the competitive edge that elite schools once held.

Top universities once benefited from having clusters of star professors. The study showed that during the 1970s, an economics professor from a random university, outside the top 25 programmes, would double his research productivity by moving to Harvard. The strong relationship between individual output and that of one’s colleagues weakened in the 1980s, and vanished by the end of the 1990s.

In this case, the professor’s intellectual capital (their smarts as measured by publications) depended significantly on their social capital (their networks of colleagues down the hall).

So would the same benefit seem to apply to the students taking classes with those same professors? Better performance comes from better connections.

You can’t argue with that–who doesn’t want better performance? But very interesting lessons might be learned if you try to separate out the advantages that go to students attending particular schools from the true contributions of those particular schools to creating those advantages. It might change our ideas about what we do, what we teach, and why.