Rank Rankings

August 17, 2010

Last week, Forbes released its rankings of American colleges and universities.  This week, U.S. News and World Report is releasing theirs.  I’ve been a steady, vocal critic of these ranking enterprises.  I think they are a very bad idea for at least these reasons:

(1) It is not helpful to young men and women to create a single, ordered list of colleges and universities, pretending that this is a ‘quality’ ranking. Colleges have different missions.  Earlham’s mission isn’t the same as Williams’ mission, or Wheaton’s (either one), or Reed’s.

What matters most in a college education is what the student brings to the enterprise, and different students thrive at different institutions.  A student needs to find a place that will; draw the best out of him or her.  There are real differences of personality among colleges and universities that do not array along a single axis of “quality.”

(2) There is nothing in any of the rankings that addresses the quality of learning at a college or university, and that’s the most important thing.

(3) None of the factors that are smooshed together in the rankings from Forbes or USN&WR (or… or…) has been shown to correlate in any way with student learning.  None.

In an e-mail exchange this afternoon with an institutional researcher at another college I noted that there WAS a very high correlation between SAT scores and placement in the rankings.  He wrote back to say “the covariation between SAT and reputation are so
strong that it is difficult to separate them statistically.”

A large component of the USN&WR rankings is the result of a survey that USN&WR sends out to college presidents, academic deans, admissions deans, and for the first time this year, college counselors at high schools.  At Earlham we do not participate.  The survey form asks us to rank hundreds of other colleges.  I do not know (and nor does anyone else) what is happening in terms of student learning at hundreds of other colleges and universities. I could not fill out the survey with integrity, and I tell that to USN&WR each year when I refuse to fill it out.  The collected responses on this survey are what my friend means by “reputation.”

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that those who DO fill out the survey are rating higher those institutions that attract students with higher incoming SAT scores.  But those scores are telling us nothing, absolutely nothing, about whether students learn after they arrive at the college.

This reminds me of the old joke that Harvard admits the 1000 most talent young people in the country each year, stays out of their way for four years, and then takes credit for them (and fund raises from them) for the rest of their lives.

I’m grateful I’m at a college that cares passionately about and stays focused on whether our students are learning.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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