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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/ 3/2010

What makes a top college? Nobel winners? PhDs? Rhodes scholars?

By Valerie Strauss

What exactly makes a college considered a "top school," one of those schools on the tip of everyone’s tongue?

There are, of course, various rankings of colleges that look at different measures, including average SAT scores, selectivity rate, etc. The U.S. News & World Report annual list, the best known, has a list of criteria, though 25 percent is a subjective "peer evaluation," in which college officials are asked to rank other schools. My colleague, Dan deVise wrote in today's Washington Post about college presidents opting out of the "reputation survey."

This question was considered recently by a group of college admissions counselors in high schools across the country in a series of e-mails. Here is one from Frank Betkowski, associate director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy, an independent college-preparatory boarding school in south-central Pennsylvania:

"I always wonder where, for example, Sewanee [the University of the South in Tennessee] falls on people’s lists. Is it or isn’t it a top college? Despite its two-thirds admit rate, it’s one of the nation’s leading producers of Rhodes Scholars (adjusted for size or not), having produced more than many other schools that are generally considered ‘top’ colleges (I won’t mention them by name, but I recall that a one or more belong to a famous athletic league in the Northeast).

"And what about Reed [College in Oregon]? It has seen its admit rate drop considerably of late, but has always been one of the top (if not THE) top producer of eventual PhDs (as a percentage of its student body). Did all those PhDs in the past not qualify it as a top college? Is it only now that it’s much harder to get into that it’s even nipping at the heels of the ‘top’ colleges? (I think St. John’s College, despite its continually high admit rate, rubs elbows with Reed in this regard.)

"And then there’s the University of Chicago. It used to be that Ivy-bound kids applied to Chicago as a ‘back up’. Its admit rate has plummeted in the last several years. I once read in the NYT that Chicago has had, throughout its history, more Nobel laureates on its faculty than any other university. Did all those Nobel prizes not count for anything? Is Chicago only recently a ‘top’ college?

"And let’s not forget tiny Ursinus [College in Pennsylvania] whose MCAT average gives the ‘top’ colleges a run for their money.

"Or, do too many people simply suffer from what I like to call “the Groucho Marx syndrome?” "I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members."


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 3, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions, top colleges  
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The national rankings are, indeed, very useful and relevant. Though one can quibble about how the rankings are put together, and why the size of the endowment is so heavily weighted, while the SAT scores and the percentage admitted counts for so little, at least they give prospective students and their parents a good ballpark idea of how well regarded a particular institution is.

But the weighting of the endowment is something to quibble about. Wellesley College remains highly rated, even though its SAT scores and high admit rate would suggest that it should be knocked down several places. And among the Ivys, Dartmouth College is mysteriously ranked rather low in its "peer review" quotient, even though it continues to attract a student body whose SAT scores and extremely competitive admissions percentage would suggest that it should be ranked substantially higher. And with the prominence of its graduates in national politics and finance, one could question whether that college is underrated. Likewise, having turned out two strong presidential candidates, one Republican and one Democratic, one successful and one unsuccessful, one could ask whether Occidental College is also ranked lower than it should be.

But however one looks at the rankings, the arrogant refusal of an increasing number of college presidents to even reveal the information used by prospective students and the parents who will be asked to pay the bills for four years, does a terrible disservice to the country. If they don't like their rankings, then let those presidents improve their product. Or they can take their arguments for a change in the rankings to the rankers themselves. But to cover up such important data as test scores, class rank, etc., is to pull a cloak of secrecy over their institutions and to tell prospective students "just trust us." And one should never "just trust anyone" who tries to keep key facts about themselves secret.

Posted by: sbgoldrick | May 3, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I am puzzled by sbgoldrick's assertion that college presidents are "covering up" data such as test scores and class rank. Those data are widely available; I've never NOT been able to find them through public sources (IPEDS), third-party published sources (Princeton Review, Peterson's, and general magazines), and even private college initiatives (U-CAN). Widely available data like these help families figure out for themselves whether, for instance, test scores and Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships should count for more than endowment.

A number of college presidents have chosen not to participate in the "beauty contest" peer ranking exercise, which is an entirely different animal. They think that the reputation survey in US News gets too much weight, because, at best, it's too hard for presidents to know about a large number of schools - and, at worst, it's too easily manipulated. There's nothing sinister about refusing, especially since most of them work at the highest-ranked schools.

There's plenty of data available. What's most important is that students and families choose what's best for them personally rather than blindly following public perception about what is "hot."

Posted by: drrico | May 5, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

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