The Monthly’s rankings attempt to gauge more useful measures: social mobility, for instance, or “bang for the buck.” Its top-ranked national universities this year are the University of California-San Diego and Texas A&M. Neither is ranked in the top 30 by U.S. News. All they do is graduate a higher percentage of students than you would expect given their populations — at a reasonable price.
Yes, The Washington Monthly’s rankings are yet another list compiled by magazine editors, inevitably flawed. But the point the magazine is trying to make is that this is the model of higher education we should be encouraging. Can you really disagree? I have no doubt that you can obtain a very good education at Texas A&M. As you surely can at many other institutions that don’t crack the top of the U.S. News rankings.
I went to a state-like school for undergraduate (Waterloo, in Canada) experienced a large state school (Berkeley) as a grad student, and have been teaching at Ivies. I can see the advantages of Ivies, mainly in peer effects and signaling to the job market, or in preparing you for a research career. Probably a smaller or less elite institution would have better teaching and more engaged faculty, though. That was my experience at Waterloo.
You do expose yourself to more quirks in these other institutions. My economics department at Waterloo was basically a demilitarized zone between young real business cycle theories and older Marxists. this made for an interesting education but I really should have graduated knowing something about econometrics or mainstream macroeconomics.
I don’t really see any of this as an impediment to a successful career and happy life. I am pretty sure my daughter would be happier and better balanced not going to an elite school, and I have no plans to push her in the direction of a Yale or Columbia. UCSD and Texas A&M sound just about right–possibly what I would choose if I got a do-over.