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College Rankings: Why?

August 1, 2014

I have held college rankings in disdain for years. They are reductionist to an extreme, measuring the easy-to-measure elements that differentiate one college from another and, because the metrics are mathematical, yielding a seemingly exact numeric differentials among colleges and universities that are, upon close inspection, inconsequential. For example, the differences between the top ranked and second ranked college in one category (say, engineering schools) may not be the same as in another category (say art schools) and the numeric difference between the third and fourth ranked college may be do different than the difference between the fourth and sixteenth ranked college within a category.

Despite my misgivings about rankings, it is evident from the sales of US News And World Report experienced when it published it’s annual ratings that most Americans love them… and based on the way colleges respond to the rankings it is evident they are valued by prospective students and their parents. I do believe, however, that the US News And World Report rankings are seldom deal-breakers or deal-makers when it comes to students making their final decision. It may save a cross country trip to visit a campus, but I doubt that a student with acceptances to two or three schools refers to them to make his or her final decision… but it DOES sell magazines and it DOES generate lots of faculty room and coffee-clatch conversation and, if a college is highly rated, generates lots of calls and mailings to alumni.

Given my misgivings I was dismayed when I read that President Obama is advocating a rating system for colleges that incorporates some kind of cost/benefit analysis… and… in response to this emerging trend from the US government and the profits realized by U S News and World Report more and more media outlets are jumping on the rating bandwagon, including Money Magazine. Kevin Carey reported on this development an article that appeared in Tuesday’s NYTimes Upshot section… and the title of the article tells you all you need to know about the rating system: “Building a Better College Rating System. Wait! Babson Beat Harvard!” With an undergraduate degree from Drexel University and two graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania I can testify to the fact that there is NOT that much difference in rigor between a “middle tier” university and an “elite” Ivy League school… and I can also testify to the fact that what separates the two institutions defies a simplistic mathematical metric like “earnings after 10 years” no matter how sophisticated the weighting of various exogenous factors…

Measuring quality is a difficult proposition and, in my judgment, not worthwhile. But it is relatively easy to identify and regulate institutions that mislead prospective entrants, fail to support enrolled students, employ unqualified and/or underpaid staff that turn over frequently, and have abysmal graduation rates. The time and money spent developing arcane statistical calculations to create gradations between good and excellent schools would be better spent aggressively monitoring those institutions that are profiteering at the expense of gullible students.

  1. August 1, 2014 at 3:50 am

    Reblogged this on Pilant's Faculty Senate Page.

  2. Elyssa
    August 1, 2014 at 10:09 am

    My college never makes that list, yet you & I know it was the best fit for me.

    • August 1, 2014 at 10:19 am

      My point exactly!

  1. February 12, 2015 at 12:28 pm
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