Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Best College in America?

Forbes recently announced that the "best" college in America is The U.S. Military Academy at West point. Emphasis on Military. For the uninformed, that's the University of Army.

The 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. (The ranking institute) "prize(s) 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." According to these criteria, the top five colleges are:

1. United States Military Academy; 2. Princeton University; 3. California Institute of Technology; 4. Williams College; 5. Harvard University.

What I'm wondering is, based on the criteria, why places 2-5 aren't held by the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, Coast Guard Academy, and Quantico. Those four must tie West Point for graduation rate and debt upon graduation. And, looking at those four who trail West Point, they have to be at the opposite extreme for debt. That they even came close is amazing. One would think, though, that Princeton, CIT, Williams, and Harvard must have made up ground in the preparation for the real world.

Now, I'm not one to knock the military academies. Well, OK, not to their faces. I didn't serve in the armed forces; I worked in a classroom of behaviorally challenged misfits in a school for two years, making $148 a month as "alternative service" after being drafted. The closest I got to the military was competing against Air Force in college duel track meets. But, I was thinking, wouldn't it be nice if the U.S. government had a 6th college that was highly competitive in admitting bright young folks, required a U.S. senator's recommendation, and paid the applicants' tuition on the condition that upon graduation, they would have to serve for five years in VISTA or the Peace Corps, or some equivalent? Imagine what that would mean: Sending our best and brightest into the world to work for peace rather than prepare for war. Let's face it, as long as we are turning out military officers, we need to find them work, something our government has been very good at for the past five decades, whether it is in our country's best interest or not.

Peace Corps volunteers have been among my heroes for many years. They live under extremely impoverished conditions, often in dangerous situations, and establish positive long-term relationships with people in developing countries, all for no thanks, and no pension. I'd love to see a July 4th parade led by returned Peace Corps volunteers. They are every bit as patriotic as our service men and women. It's time we honored their service to the country as well. (Yes, I know about the pot smoking, but my ex-military service friends report that they certainly would give the Peace Corps crowd a run for their marijuana money.)

Back to the "best" college thing. I'm hoping that some senator or congress(wo)man will get to work on introduction of a bill to establish the first United States Peace University. If it passes, I will be first in line to contribute to their endowment fund. We need some balance in perspective as to our role in the world. Instead of sending young people to die for our financial interests, let's send people forth beyond even what the Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers do, and establish long-term, high-level political ties for what the people of the world are more than ready for: A lasting peace.

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