08/31/2006 11:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

College Rankings and ROTC

The magazines in the college ranking business use some mighty strange measures to determine the "best" schools in the country-- Rebecca Goldin, my colleague at, points out some unusual biases in the Washington Monthly ranks here. She helps explain how that magazine determined that South Carolina State is a better school than Princeton or Harvard (ranked first and second respectively by U.S. News and World Report).

Curiously, the liberal Monthly-- unlike the more conservative USN&WR-- wound up over-emphasizing student participation in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as a measure of community service done by universities, while neglecting to fully factor in how academic research provides benefits such as curing diseases and improving technology. Washington Monthly boldly stated: "Princeton receives millions of dollars in federal research grants. Does it deserve them? What has Princeton done for us lately? This is the only guide that tries to tell you."

While community service done by students to earn scholarships and prepare themselves for military careers is surely valuable (as are other measures WM includes, like social mobility), it makes little sense to claim that these are overall more important contributions from a university than research. After all, research grants are awarded to those deemed best to look into particular problems-- their goal isn't usually increased military recruitment, though I wouldn't be surprised if more funding weren't headed that way shortly!