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The Prudent Scholar explores the topic of money and higher education. We look at at big picture and small: both the latest news and the nitty-gritty details of college life that might help you save money and get more value from your educational experience.

March 1, 2011

"Best" Colleges - What do rankings measure?

We Americans do love to rank things. But, as prudent scholars, it's important to know what criteria go into the rankings that guide our lives.

Sometimes you put your faith in the source, right?   If Roger Ebert sends out a list of Best Movies Ever, you might take notice --- if you tend to agree with Roger Ebert.   He's an expert on movies, but he's not objective. He's giving an opinion. And, you know, because you've been to Rotten Tomatoes, that experts disagree. Just like you, they have different likes and dislikes and this comes through in their reviews.

College rankings are very much like a movie review. Except that you haven't had years to figure out if you like the reviewer. You take it on faith without establishing a history. Fortunately, they publish their criteria. You just have to pay attention.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and the Tipping Point takes a look at The Order of Things in a The New Yorker critique of the U.S. News and World Report ranking. This ranking, Gladwell says, compares apples to oranges to bananas to grapes.

The rankings currently rely on seven weighted variables:
1. Undergraduate academic reputation  (22.5 percent)
2. Graduation and freshman retention (20 percent)
3. Faculty resources (20 percent)
4. Student selectivity (15 percent)
5. Financial resources (10 percent)
6. Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent)
7. Alumni giving (5 percent)

U.S. News uses these variables to compare every college in the country -- never mind that some colleges do a better job of, say, I don't know, maybe teaching. You can't tell that by this list.

Gladwell tells us:
"There's no direct way to measure the quality of an institution -- how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality -- and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best."

You might notice that the list doesn't include price.  The rankings don't give points for being affordable. Why?  The man in charge of the rankings, Robert Morse, "admitted that there was no formal reason." 

Morse explains the rankings:
"We're not saying that we're measuring educational outcomes. We're not saying we're social scientists, or we're subjecting our rankings to some peer-review process. We're just saying we've made this judgment. We're saying we've interviewed a lot of experts, we've developed these academic indicators, and we think these measures measure quality schools."
That, prudent scholars, is called subjectivity.  While value  never went into the equation, someone decided that, for example, selectivity was more important than efficacy.  Penn State, a well-regarded school with a mission of serving a wide range of students and doing it well at a relatively affordable price, will never outperform Yale on the U.S. News rankings. Why? Because U.S. News weighs selectivity higher than graduation rate performance.   The system is actually gamed against value.

Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State, notes that the top twenty schools on the list will always be the wealthy private universities.

"It doesn't really make sense, until you drill down into the rankings, and what do you find? What I find more than anything else is a measure of wealth: institutional wealth, how big is your endowment, what percentage of alumni are donating each year, what are your faculty salaries, how much are you spending per student."
Penn State's students aren't rich.  "There is no possibility that we could do anything here at this university to get ourselves into the top ten or twenty or thirty-- except if some donor gave us billions of dollars," Spanier said.

Different movie reviewers are looking for different things. One likes snappy dialogue. One wants realistic action sequences.  Do the college rankings measure what you care about?

It depends. What’s your criteria for college?  Is it in the list or are you more concerned about an urban experience? A small student-to-faculty ratio?  In-state tuition? As much prestige as you can get for the money?  Question the value of the rankings to you before you make decisions based on somebody's opinion.

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