Sunday, August 09, 2009

America's Best College

How West Point beats the Ivy League

College senior Raymond Vetter gets up at dawn to fit in a run or a workout. Then, hair shorn neatly and pants pressed, he marches into breakfast, where he sits in an assigned seat. After six hours of instruction in such subjects as Japanese literature and systems engineering, two hours of intramural sports and another family-style meal with underclassmen, Vetter rushes to return to his room by the 11:30 p.m. curfew.

Most college students, we think, do not march to meals. A goodly number of them drink into the wee hours, duck morning classes and fail to hit the gym with any regularity. But Vetter, 21, is a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where college life is a bit different.

According to students, alumni, faculty and higher education experts, the undergraduate experience at West Point and the other service academies is defined by an intense work ethic and a drive to succeed on all fronts. "We face challenges and obstacles that not every college student has to face, but we are able to be competitive in all the different areas, from sports to academics," Vetter says.

No alcohol is allowed in the dorms and freshmen are given only one weekend leave per semester. That rigor, combined with the virtue of a free education, has made West Point tops in FORBES' list of the best colleges in the country, up from sixth place last year. The rankings are compiled in conjunction with Ohio University economist Richard Vedder and his Center for College Affordability & Productivity.

West Point excels in most measures. It graduates 80% of its students in four years. It is fourth in winners of Rhodes scholarships since 1923 (ahead of Stanford), sixth in Marshalls since 1982 (ahead of Columbia and Cornell) and fourth in Trumans since 1992 (ahead of Princeton and Duke). This year 4 out of 37 Gates scholars, who earn a full ride to study at the University of Cambridge in England, graduated from the service academies. The Gates roster includes four Yale grads, one from Harvard and none from Princeton.

"I think I got a lot out of it," says Joseph M. DePinto, USMA class of '86 and chief executive of 7-Eleven. "Just the discipline, the approach I take to leadership, the understanding of the importance of teamwork. All of that stuff I learned at West Point, and I think that's what helped me be successful."

Classes are small, with no more than 18 students. Cadets work their way through a core curriculum in which an English major has to take calculus and a chemist has to take a philosophy course. Since there are no graduate programs, faculty and administrators can focus on the undergraduates.

"If you really look at Brown University or Boston College or Stanford, their number one mission is likely not to teach. It's to bring research dollars to the campus … to write the next book that will get them on CNN," says James Forest, an associate professor at West Point who is the director of terrorism studies. "Pressure to be that kind of new academic star isn't there [at West Point]."

A big factor in its top rank is that grads leave without a penny of tuition loans to repay. The Army picks up all costs and pays the cadets a stipend of $895 a month. On graduation, they start as second lieutenants, earning $69,000 a year. They have to serve in the armed forces for five years plus three more years of inactive reserve duty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have pulled 15% of reservists into active duty.

West Point has plenty of critics. In April Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered the military, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling on the government to shut the military academies. West Point doesn't produce officers of any higher caliber, he argues, than a graduate from another elite school who has participated in an ROTC program. "It's not better than Harvard," he says, citing the fact that the majority of West Point professors don't have Ph.D.s and the school's traditionally weak treatment of crucial subjects like anthropology, history and foreign languages.

It also produces young people more prone to groupthink than to groundbreaking ideas. W. Patrick Lang, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and a professor of Arabic at West Point in the 1970s, says the service academies "haven't been very good at producing people who were very good at humanistic, open-ended problems." [And Harvard isn't very good at producing good marksmen]

Bruce Fleming, who has been teaching English for 22 years at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., faults the service academies for their rigidity. "I really love my students. I just do. It's an institution that grinds students down," he says.

But the cadets know the drill: job security. Leadership training. Lifelong friendships. "A West Point diploma is at least as impressive as a Harvard diploma for a lot of things," says Robert Farley, an assistant professor of national security at the University of Kentucky. "Were I an employer, I'd have utter faith in a graduate of the service academies."

"We are giving up what may be the quintessential college experience. But we're getting a job where we're immediately in a leadership position, not a back-room job where who knows what your chances of promotion are," says Elizabeth Betterbed, 20, of Fox Island, Wash., one of the 699 female cadets at West Point. "Like any other school you incur a debt, and for us it only takes five years to pay off. It's really nothing."

Behind the Numbers

Our college rankings are based on five criteria: graduation rate (how good a college is at helping its students finish on time); the number of national and global awards won by students and faculty; students' satisfaction with their instructors; average debt upon graduation; and postgraduate vocational success as measured by a recent graduate's average salary and alumni achievement. We prize the undergraduate experience and how well prepared students are for the real world rather than focusing on inputs such as acceptance rates and test scores. Our data are from publicly available sources rather than surveys filled out by the schools themselves. Special thanks to Richard Vedder and his research team at Ohio University.


In education, elitism is not a dirty word

Britain has an education policy predicated upon the same prejudices as the Hunting Act

"Education, education, education" was the priority defined by Tony Blair at the outset of New Labour government. Today, 12 years into that experience, the state of British education testifies to the consequences of the politicisation of the learning process, and the imposition of an ideology that regards schools and universities primarily as instruments of social engineering and only secondarily as diffusers of knowledge. Yet this destructive campaign, so far from retreating in the face of its demonstrable failure, is accelerating.

Last week, several developments highlighted the state's continuing assault on academic standards, and the opposition it is provoking. First, Ofqual, the examinations regulator, confirmed that it will defer to the Government's breakneck timetable and press on with the introduction of the new "fourth phase" academic diplomas, despite the fact – as revealed by this newspaper last April – that every exam board in the country has urged that this half-baked project be delayed. This was a virility test for Ofqual: it failed. It now seems likely that OCR, the exam board owned by Cambridge University, will withdraw from the diploma system, which it has described as "nothing more than a poor man's A-level or GCSE".

Also last week, Lord Mandelson made a speech in which he returned to the tired old mantra of "widening access" to Britain's leading universities. This coincides with a report today from the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee that went further than ever before in demanding the social engineering of university admissions. This agenda was first set by Gordon Brown in 2000, with his ill-informed intrusion into the Laura Spence affair. It is a recipe for disaster. Vice chancellors have strained every sinew to recruit disadvantaged students, providing remedial education to help them, to no avail.

This, of course, is because the problem lies not in the universities, but in the state-school system. Because of the failure of the "bog-standard comprehensives", to use a phrase coined by Alastair Campbell, the percentage of state-school students at Cambridge is lower than in 1980. Within the high-flying Russell Group of universities, the intake from independent schools is hugely disproportionate and, among state-school students, England's 164 surviving grammar [selective] schools are similarly over-represented.

What, then, to do? Yes, we could pack the universities with poorly performing students in the name of "fairness". Yet Britain's leading universities have evolved over centuries to world-class standards. To vandalise that national asset would be a mortal blow, leaving us hopelessly uncompetitive. Elitism is not a dirty word: it is the precondition for meritocracy. Lord Mandelson knows that; but he is playing pre-election politics.

The Government's overriding concern should not be those few institutions that are succeeding, but the many that are not. Instead, we have an education policy predicated upon the same prejudices as the Hunting Act. A future Tory government must not be inhibited by self-consciousness about its leaders' Bullingdon [Oxford club] background. It must implement reforms that rebuild the ladder of opportunity for gifted students from poor backgrounds, and so secure Britain's place in a globalised, highly skilled and meritocratic world.


Australia: Private schools top the class as results compared

Surprise! Note that these results are for Queensland only. NSW has made it illegal to release such information about their schools

STATE high schools were trounced by their private counterparts in last year's national numeracy and literacy tests, with only one in the 40 highest-scoring schools. The revelation is just one contained in today's inaugural release of NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) data by the Queensland Government, with students' results from years 3, 5, 7 and 9 chronicled "in a single statewide compilation". Analysis of the list reveals:

• State schools, particularly high schools and those in lower socio-economic areas, were outperformed by their private school counterparts.

• Only five state high schools appeared in the top 100 list for average school results.

• Brisbane State High School [a selective school] performed particularly well in academic scores – ranking fifth statewide – while Kenmore, Indooroopilly, Mansfield and The Gap state high schools also made the top 100.

• State primary schools did much better than their senior counterparts, with Indooroopilly, Ironside and Norman Park in the top 10.

• Of the schools which had all their results published, only six had 100 per cent of students above the National Minimum Standard in every year and every category. Four were too small to include in the top 10 – the Agnew schools at Wakerley and Nambour, the Samford Valley Steiner School and the School of Total Distance Education at Warwick.

• Schools with large numbers of indigenous students continued to perform poorly.

Controversy continues to surround the release of NAPLAN data, with NSW banning the publication of any list that ranks schools by results. Meanwhile, education stakeholders yesterday urged parents not to judge schools by the latest list alone.

Author of the NSW amendment which banned league tables, Greens MP John Kaye, said although the Queensland list would not be outlawed in his state, it was misleading. "Reducing the complexities of schools down to a single number or even a set of numbers is not only misleading, it will undermine educational outcomes as teachers are forced to teach to the tests at the expense of the remainder of the curriculum," Dr Kaye said.

Queensland Association of State School Principals president Norm Hart said making comparisons with the list could malign some excellent schools that were doing extremely well given their resources.

State Education Minister Geoff Wilson said the information alone was not enough to judge a school. "It is a snapshot and a snapshot only. It is one part of the total picture of information that parents should take into account," he said. [Any suggestion about what else parents should take into account?]


1 comment:

FuzzyRider said...

Unless the school is unsafe in some way, there ISN'T anything else that should be taken into account. To condemn a child to a crappy school when a better alternative is available is a form of child abuse.