The College Rankings Season Opens

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The US News college ranking issue is out again, with the usual suspects on top and the same chorus of administrators, professors, and think tanks attacking the study's methodology, on the usual grounds -- favoring research-oriented richer institutions, distorting admissions policies for artificial inflation of selectivity and test scores, and ignoring hard-to-measure outcomes of education. Of course, rankings also encourage colleges to address real issues like retention rates and overuse of adjunct faculty. Anyway, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a campaign to boycott the peer rating of other institutions has stalled; participation inched up last year.
 
The methodology of some critics may be no better than the magazine's. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) rates colleges for policies like required survey courses and gives Fs to the three liberal arts colleges rated highest by US News: Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore. Are graduates of those colleges really so ill-educated? Not those I've known. Surveys, like specialized cafeteria courses, may be boring and forgettable or electrifying, but giving them all an A is grade inflation for cultural conservatives.On the public university side, the best piece I've seen on the ratings business appeared last spring in the Michigan Daily, by the student journalist Stephen Ostrowski:
 

The U.S. News and World Report lists the University as the 26th-best institution of higher education in the country, wedged comfortably between the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, respectively.

Forbes Magazine, meanwhile, listed the University at 161st, right between Lake Forest College and Wisconsin Lutheran College.

In the world of college rankings, neck-breaking double takes abound. But it's the nature of the business that discrepancies exist -- why would Forbes begin ranking schools if its list was going to match up almost exactly with U.S. News, the leading rankings publication? The flip side to that, of course, is how could a dozen different publications differentiate their ranking systems enough to make printing them worthwhile? The trick is widely varying methodologies so that the same qualities that got a university in one publication's top 20 barely warrant a ranking above 200 to another publication.

I'm biased as a former contributor to the US News rankings issue, but I think it (and the competition) should be praised for making information, however imperfect, available. Five years ago, Gregg Easterbrook deflated admissions anxiety in the Atlantic, and US News has pointed to the range of "A+ Schools for B Students." Magazines have done a lot to moderate academic neuroses. Higher education needs more, not fewer, rankings and lists.


(Photo: Flickr User Alotor)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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