University of California Offers Pretty Good Bang for the Buck -- For Now

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 10:15 AM EDT

Several years ago the Washington Monthly decided to start up a new kind of college ranking, this one based on the actual social value of universities across the country. You can read the rationale for the rankings here, but I was struck by Paul Glastris's introduction today:

Only one of U.S. News' top ten schools, Stanford, makes the Washington Monthly's top ten. Yale fails even to crack our top 40....Instead, the University of California - San Diego is our number one national university for the third year in a row, a testament to its commitment to educating an economically diverse student body while supporting world-class research. Six of our top 20 universities hail from the UC system.

This has been true ever since the Monthly started compiling its list, and the UC did especially well this year. And it kills me to read it. Not because the University of California earns such high scores, but because it's doing it by living off its past glory. In the past, the UC was well funded and offered a top notch education that was affordable for practically anyone. The usual way to describe it was as a "jewel." But that was decades ago. These days, it's underfunded, not highly valued either by legislators or voters, less and less competitive at hiring the best faculty, and increasingly expensive. The fact that it still does so well in the Monthly's ranking is a testament both to inertia and to the fact that public higher education is declining in the rest of the country too.

But that won't last forever. The UC is still pretty good, but that's only because it takes a long time for a great institution to crumble. It's just damn sad to watch it.