Consummate dilettantism!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

In Defense of the U.S. News & World Rankings

It is now received wisdom that the U.S. News & World Report college rankings are at best meaningless and at worst deliberately manipulative. No more accurate than astrological predictions, these rankings can never hope to compete with the learned judgments of counselors or friends. This may be so, but can't anything be said in their defense? Is the standard narrative really true? I doubt it.

You see, to better examine the question, you've got to look at what the magazine actually uses to rank schools. (You didn't think it threw darts, did you?) According to its website, the factors used are peer assessment (25%), retention (20%), faculty resources (20%), student selectivity (15%), financial resources (10%), graduation rate performance (5%), and alumni giving rate (5%). These certainly give the lie to the claim that the rankings are "arbitrary" -- each is, at the very least, somewhat tangential to the difficult-to-define "academic quality." And, although the weights are slightly subjective, they seem reasonable -- any other weighting would be just as subjective. Indeed, the magazine does not claim that the weights are not (i.e., objective) -- it itself states that each "reflects [its] judgment about how much a measure matters." Tweaking may produce a different ranking, but the factors as assembled do not create entirely meaningless results.

It is also often claimed that because the relative positions of the schools change from year to year, the system has no reliability. How can the University of Chicago be worse than Duke and then, quite suddenly, not? But, in fact, their changing implies precisely the opposite: The system is working. If a list of schools in order of quality were to remain constant for years, there would be grounds for suspicion. As matters stand, however, that the academic quality of schools is constantly in flux is no cause for alarm. That the University of Chicago was placed below Duke in one year and matched with it the next is no caprice: It merely reflects how U.S. News & World perceives academic quality. The change is admittedly barely perceptible, but it is there.

But what of the charge that there are certain factors that are immeasurable? What of Chicago's reputed intellectualism? How can anyone possibly pin that down? I think the answer is that in many cases these "immeasurable" factors are exaggerated. No offense to the school, but I don't think that Chicago's students are significantly more inquisitive, intelligent, and intellectual than, say, Columbia's or Harvard's. Perhaps in some ways, but not in others. Chicago's pool of students may be a little more unique, but I would guess that most Chicago students would not be unwilling to attend Columbia or Harvard. The importance of individual tastes is not to be discounted, but you must remember that students, the men and women who give a school its character, who share the same brackets are similar.

Are there legitimate criticisms to be made? Of course. There are serious concerns that "peer assessment" has devolved into a prestige-fest and is far too subjective. Some colleges (notably Sarah Lawrence and Reed) have even refused to play ball. But I think that the methodology remains valid on a macro-level -- i.e., colleges within a certain bracket (5, 10 slots in size) can together be fairly judged against other brackets but not against each other.

Can U.S. News & World ever replace visiting colleges, speaking with current and former students, and feel? It patently cannot: Choosing one's college is an immensely personal experience. Nor, however, does U.S. News & World claim that it can:
Of course, many factors other than those we measure will figure in your decision, including the feel of campus life, activities, sports, academic offerings, location, cost, and availability of financial aid. But if you combine the information in this book with college visits, interviews, and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for college.
The purpose of the U.S. News & World rankings is to give rationally ignorant parents (hopefully not students!) who do not have the time to study colleges a reasonable list of high-quality schools to investigate. They should be used as a starting point, like Wikipedia -- not as a research paper.

Consider: If your local community college (whose academics, according to U.S. News & World Report, were lousy) happened to feel inherently great, would you prefer it to the University of Chicago? Would you attend? Before you dismiss the rankings as meaningless, ask yourself how many colleges not on the list you applied to (that you would seriously consider attending for the next four years). Did you investigate the academic prowess of every single college in the United States? How comes it that included on the list are almost all the schools to which a Chicago student would likely apply? I suspect that there is a real correlation between presence and placement on the list and academic quality, however indiscernible.

No comments:

Post a Comment