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College Ratings Gone Wild

Four years ago I ranked all of the major college guides for Slate. My piece is still there, if you want to look. It retains some relevance at this time of year, when America has its annual ratings-o-rama. It is more entertaining than informative, but so what? A little amusement might help us better understand what we want in our colleges.

I have been leafing through the guides that just arrived in the mail. There is the Newsweek-Kaplan college guide, where once again I have an article, so in the interests of modesty and objectivity we will ignore it. The granddaddy of guides, U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges,” sits atop my stack, still shiny and proud despite all the abuse it has gotten over the years. “The Best 371 Colleges,” a thick book by The Princeton Review, is a favorite because of its playfulness.

I am also fond of the Washington Monthly college guide. It has found a way to deepen and broaden each year what I once thought was a one-time gimmick--ranking colleges by how well they serve America. I am excited by a new guide, at least new to me, the “Military Friendly Schools” list published by G.I. Jobs magazine. The “What Will They Learn?” report, an unconventional guide by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, shows how the lists might look if we cared about what our colleges were teaching.

None of these guides, of course, is entirely satisfying. Leafing through them reminds me of my lifelong quest for the perfect chocolate milkshake. There is always a flaw---too thin, too thick, too chocolate, too sweet. But it is fun to look, and that’s why we need all these college guides. Their contrarian views are stimulating. Our family arguments about them force us to think. They give us a clearer view of what we want in a college, and how many different ways there are to get that.

So what do each of these offer? The college lists in U.S. News don’t change much from year to year, but fortunately for my journalist colleagues at that magazine, their readers do. New cohorts of nervous parents and students devour the data--a great time saver for anyone on a college search.

The magazine finds innovative ways to render their numbers, such as the Up-and-Coming list and the A-plus Schools for B Students list. Their subsidiary lists recognize little-known colleges that my favorite sources--high school counselors--say deliver great educations, like the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Furman University, Ursinus College, University of Redlands and University of Vermont.

Whenever I open the new Princeton Review guide, I turn to their often comic rankings in the front of the book. Atop the list for “Future Rotarians and Daughters of the American Revolution” are BYU, Grove City College and Hillsdale College. Leading all qualifiers in appeal to “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians” are Bard College, Hampshire College and Eugene Lang College.

There are dozens of other categories. I appreciate, having sampled them for laughs, that all such lists, even the serious ones, are in some way subjective. Since we like some of our stereotypes, we don’t mind if our choices are influenced by them.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni guide makes just one point, hammered hard, but is still a great read. It grades colleges based on whether they require students to read the great books and study vital subjects such as economics.

Those that don’t are pummeled. A sample: “Places like Williams College and Amherst College proclaim their dedication to the principles and goals of liberal education, but in fact have virtually no requirements. Wesleyan University promises that its general education curriculum will allow freshmen and sophomores to experience the ‘full dimension of intellectual breadth vital to a liberal education.’ However, students can bypass hard science courses in favor of classes such as ‘The Psychology of Reading’ or ‘Physics for Future Presidents'.”

G.I. Jobs magazine doesn’t rank its military friendly schools, but assures readers that the ones on its list try hardest to recruit ex-military students and make sure they can afford to attend. Were it not for this list, I would have gone to my death never having heard of some of these colleges. What they are doing is important. A list that draws attention to places like Upper Iowa University and Thomas Edison State College is worth it.

The Washington Monthly list is a feast of unexpected insights. To reveal not what colleges can do for you but for the country, they have focused on schools that spend much on research, recruit low-income students and encourage public service. They rank, and are quick to confess when they trip over their own rules. Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at the Education Sector think tank who compiled the monthly’s rankings, takes an entire page to explain why she did not count each college’s participation in Teach For America.

That organization would seem to signal a commitment to public service, because it sends college graduates to inner city schools. The problem, Dillon says, is that it is not the colleges, but Teach For America, that decides which schools will have the most active recruitment programs. TFA is looking for academic stars. Its corps members’ SAT reading and math scores average over 1300. So the most selective colleges have an advantage. If TFA counted, Dillon says, Yale would jump from 23rd to fifth place on the Washington Monthly list.

Isn’t that interesting? Odd-ball lists illuminate strange college characteristics. Such things can make a difference in where we decide to get our higher education.

If you want an even wilder list, just wait. Ben Wildavsky, a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, reveals in the monthly that the rest of the world is getting into the college rating business. (U.S. News put out its first world list in 2008.)

Some of the international lists have dizzying fluctuations. Even the highly regarded U.S. university system is likely to find itself below expectations.

This will give me something to talk about with the foreign exchange student who just moved in with our neighbor. The University of Düsseldorf is better than Virginia Tech? Is that a sample of the new Euro-humor? Sit down, kid. Let me see those numbers.

By Washington Post editors  | September 4, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

The poll asks if college rankings are important. And the answer, frankly, is "very". Why? Mostly because international students use them, nearly exclusively, to determine what school to go to. This is mostly at the graduate level, but also the undergraduate level. Deans, department chairs, and many others spend a lot of time understanding how the rankings are done. And some spend a fair bit of time figuring out how to game them. Of a certainty some of the rankings are based on bogus data supplied by the schools themselves...

Posted by: bobtom222 | September 4, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Are Miss America or Miss United States the most beautiful women in the U.S.? How about Harvard, Hopkins, Yale, and Princeton among colleges? Beauty contests have their place, and college isn't it. Before there were formal ratings, there was a general consensus both here and abroad concerning which colleges were America's top schools. The college rating-come-lately system adds no value to education in this country, and, indeed, subtracts value to the extent that college personnel waste time participating in the surveys, or, worse yet, trying to game them. College guides that provided information on universities and specific departments are useful to applicants who are considering schools to which to apply. Ratings, like beauty, are skin deep and fleeting. They have no place in higher education.

Posted by: virtualchemist | September 6, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

In response to virtualchemist, the rankings do serve a number of roles. Students _don't_ generally have a good sense of the quality of a school. They get marketing stuff and only the well-connected can really figure out if school X is likely to be better than school Y without the rankings. For international students it's even worse. For graduate schools it can be even more important (quick, what are 5 of the top 10 schools in Industrial Engineering research?) as word of mouth has little-to-no chance of being helpful and even faculty at smaller, non-research, schools will not know how to judge the quality of schools in a narrow discipline.

Of course, like all assessment schemes, the act of measurement is both flawed and affects the thing being measured. And that's a problem...

Posted by: bobtom222 | September 7, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

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