In a previous post (The Importance of Fit Part One) I hinted at my loathing for college rankings and promised that it would be the subject of a future post. Well, the future is now.
If I had just one wish, it would be that the yearly US News and World Report: America's Best Colleges issue and all its clones (I think Forbes magazine does something similar) would be consigned to the Great Garbage Can in the Sky and that its authors and publishers be consigned to the deepest pits of hell to roast slowly for all eternity. Okay, I guess that's two wishes but you see where I am going with this...
So why the hate? Most people love the US News rankings so much that this single issue has outlived the magazine itself. It's found in the homes of many high school seniors and many students and even counselors use it as their college application bible. Everybody loves rankings! We rank everything: hair dryers, cars, and now, apparently, colleges. Alumni love it when their alma mater is ranked in the Top 20. But as was once said, "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted should count." Nowhere is the above quote more true than with colleges.
To rank colleges implies that we can quantify what makes a "good" college. Nothing could be further than the truth! One's college experience is so intensely personal that to say that one's experience is better than another borders on the blasphemous. Even the input that go into the rankings is suspect. A full quarter of the ranking is based simply on reputation. College presidents, provosts and admission deans are polled and are simply asked to rank the undergraduate programs of schools with the same mission as themselves. For example, presidents of large universities are asked to rank programs of other large universities and presidents of smaller liberal arts colleges are asked to rank the programs of others like themselves. Many of those acknowledge that they lack the detailed knowledge of other colleges that they would need to respond meaningfully. The remaining 75% of a college's ranking is based on retention and graduation rate, faculty and resources, student selectivity, alumni giving and graduation rate performance. Several of these factors have subcategories, e.g. student selectivity includes the statistics of the incoming freshman class (SAT scores, GPA, etc.) and how many applicants they turn away (the lower the admission rate the higher the ranking). I think that last subcategory is really specious....check out what I say about selectivity being a measure of college quality in a previous post "Ivy League: Who Needs 'em?". Check the part about its similarity to IHOP. What is glaringly absent in the survey is a measure of categories like student satisfaction or teaching quality. Do a Google search on "colleges with best professors". What do we find? Not a single Ivy among them. Okay, a Google search isn't the most scientific way of finding the schools with the best profs but it isn't any less scientific than what US News is doing so...
But what really stokes my intense hatred of this list is that colleges cheat, fudge data, and indulge in really low rent admission practices to climb a few notches. Schools like Emory University and Claremont McKenna College have fudged SAT data to look better in the rankings. Another thing that's curious....why do Ivy League schools and other hyper selective institutions bother going on recruiting trips? Even all the way out here in the Philippines, schools like Penn, Brown, Duke and Georgetown come trolling for students. Why? They have more than enough applicants...look at an earlier post when I look at the admission numbers of the Ivies. Why do they need more applicants? Simple. They need more applicants so they can turn more away. If their admission rate goes down, they are seen to be more selective and they get brownie rankings points. Another measure they have is yield. The more students who are admitted who subsequently enroll, the higher the yield and the better they look. As a result, some colleges have taken to rejecting or waitlisting top admission candidates because they feel that these students wouldn't come if admitted anyway. So why mess up their yield?
But all is not lost. A few years ago, the president of Reed College (easily one of my very favorite colleges in the world...more in a future post) basically told US News to jump in the lake. Reed was completely opting out of the rankings game and would no longer be cooperating with US News in any way. US News did not take the defiance very well...they knocked Reed College, easily one of the top 5 national liberal arts colleges (it's ironic that I'm using a ranking here), to number 75 using data that came from God knows where.
So what's the take home message here? If you haven't already figured it out, it's trash the rankings. Do your homework, folks, and carefully research your university choices and look for the best fit. Prestige and image mean ultimately nothing. They might make your friends and your parents's friends go ooohhh and aaaahhhh but that's it.
I'll let Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University have the final words: "Now more than ever, people believe that the ranking...or the presumed hierarchy of "quality" or "prestige....of the college or university one attends matters, and matters enormously. More than ever, education is being viewed as a commodity... The large and fundamental problem is that we are at risk of it all seeming and becoming increasingly a game. What matters is less the education and more the brand."
Springer, Reider, and Franck Admission Matters 2nd edition, Jossey-Bass, 2009.