My Annual Stint as Counterpoint

August 22, 2010

Every August, as the rankings are released, I play a role as the counterpoint person in some national media story about the rankings.  Somewhere there’s a newspaper wanting to do a story about some local university whose rankings have improved (or worsened), and the reporter on the story finds me as the canonical rankings critic.

This year it was the University of Miami (yes, the one in Florida) that ascended in the rankings, the paper was the Miami Herald, and the reporter was a very personable Michael Vasquez with whom I spent a half hour on the phone.  Here’s he story, and here’s how Michael summarized my critique:  He notes that critics say that the rankings “include no measurements of whether students are actually learning,” and then goes on to say:

“Earlham College President Douglas Bennett has been among the most vocal opponents — refusing to even fill out the subjective ‘peer review’ questionnaires that U.S. News uses to grade a school’s national reputation.  “It’s just junk science,” Bennett said. “Americans love ratings, whether it’s beer, refrigerators or beaches.”

“Bennett said resources such as the College Board and the Fiske Guide to Colleges offer parents and students information that can help narrow the college search — minus the arbitrary numerical pecking order. The most important consideration is finding a school that is a good fit for individual students, Bennett argues, “the institution that will draw the best out of you, challenge you, stretch you, in the best possible ways,” he said.”

Not a bad quick take on what’s wrong with rankings.  The rest of the story largely set out all the things the University of Miami was saying about why they’re thrilled to be moving up in the rankings.  And the story said not a word to contest that the rankings are “junk science” that tell you nothing whatsoever about whether 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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