Friday, August 21, 2009

Choosing a College and Rankings

August 25, 2009, 8:15 a.m.

Random Thoughts on College Rankings
(brought to you by*)

The University of Iowa News Service recently trumpeted "UI 29th Best U.S. Public National University." The news release began:
The University of Iowa is the 29th best public national university in the country, according to the latest rankings published by the magazine U.S.News & World Report. The ranking places the UI in a tie with Indiana University-Bloomington, Michigan State University, University of California-Santa Cruz and Virginia Tech University.

The UI's placement in the 2010 edition of the magazine's influential "The Top 50 Public National Universities" compares to a ranking of 26th in the 2009 edition, 24th in 2008 and 25th in 2007. The UI currently is ranked 71st in the "Best National Universities" category, which contains 262 U.S. universities ( 164 public and 98 private ).

In addition, the UI once again is among 22 institutions -- including Harvard and Yale universities -- appearing in the 2010 U.S.News listing titled "Writing In The Disciplines," which recognizes institutions that "typically make writing a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum." Colleges in the listing are unranked and appear in alphabetical order. . . .
How significant are these numbers and rankings?

Not very.

Adjectives aren't very useful -- saying Iowa is a "good," "great," "first class" or a "world class" university doesn't tell us much.

From a student's perspective the criteria for selecting the place to acquire a college education are few. Since no professor can "teach" you anything -- whatever you learn you're going to have to teach yourself -- are the faculty and curriculum sufficiently adequate for you to be able to provide yourself a good liberal arts education? Do the tuition and other costs, and available grants and loans, tip the benefit-cost balance in favor of the benefits? Is the campus and community safe? Is the town small enough that it's easy to get around and not overloaded with distractions?

(Of course, if a student just wants to binge drink and party, and parents are willing to pay for that "college education," while Iowa always ranks high as a "party school," essentially any school will do and they might as well go for the very lowest tuition.)

By these standards, or any others you might want to add or substitute, it seems to me that the University of Iowa is as adequate as any college or university in the world as a place for any serious student who's willing to put in the effort, find the challenging professors, and take the tough courses, to teach him or herself the fundamentals of what we call a liberal arts education.

So what are we to make of these rankings?

Over a year ago I wrote a blog entry about the unreliability of the U.S. News law school rankings. "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008. Sixteen months later it consistently remains one of the most popular of the near-700 entries on this blog.

Now, it turns out, the college and university rankings are, if anything, even worse.

In discussing law school rankings I made, and discussed, a list of the reasons why those selecting a law school risk overemphasizing their significance. A couple of those reasons were: "The weight accorded various factors makes a dramatic difference in ranking" and "The rankings have distorted law schools' decisions, and led to 'gaming' the system -- and therefore unreliable and misleading results."

[If you're curious but don't want to click on the link above to the entire entry, I concluded: "Bottom line: chill. Law school rankings don't tell you much, and can be and are manipulated. Rankings are of very little significance in terms of the substantive quality of the legal education you'll get, especially because you're going to have to teach yourself the law anyway. Superficially, rankings in the top half-dozen may make some difference -- if you're set on getting into the places where they can help open doors -- but even by that standard you may be better off with a higher class rank from a lower ranked school than a much lower class rank from a higher ranked school. And between schools ranked, say, 15th to 30th, there really isn't much basis for choosing one school over another. Good luck -- and don't forget to apply at Iowa!"]

When it comes to colleges and universities, it turns out my observation that "The weight accorded various factors makes a dramatic difference in ranking" is so understated as to be hilarious. (Many of the other reasons I cited regarding law schools also seem applicable to the colleges.)

Read these excerpts from what AP reporter Justin Pope discovered when he compared the rankings of U.S. News with those of Forbes. Justin Pope, "Harvard, Princeton top college rankings again," Associated Press/Yahoo! News, August 19, 2009.

Perennial contenders Harvard and Princeton share the top spot in the latest edition of the influential U.S. News & World Report university rankings. Williams heads the list of liberal arts colleges while Dartmouth wins a new category ranking commitment to undergraduate teaching. . . .

The ranking formula takes account of factors such as SAT scores, peer reputation, selectivity and alumni giving. . . .

[Many] consider the practice harmful for both students and colleges.

Critics argue rankings pressure colleges to focus on boosting their scores in various categories, instead of improving their teaching. . . .

There are also charges of gaming the system. . . .

U.S. News is the most closely watched ranking of undergraduate programs, but it has a growing number of imitators — with very different ideas about what makes a top college.

Rankings recently published by, for instance, had the U.S. Military Academy at West Point ranked first, followed by Princeton and Cal Tech. But further down the list the results were wildly different, thanks to a methodology that places greater emphasis on graduates' debt load and employability (and also, controversially, uses the not-exactly-scientific web site So while Dartmouth is the No. 11 university in U.S. News, ranks it No. 98 in a combined category of colleges and universities. Meanwhile, Forbes puts tiny Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia 18 spots ahead of the Ivy League's Brown University.

Nor do the top U.S. News universities fare well on a new report card by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an academic group whose causes include stronger general education requirements in traditional subjects like history, literature and the hard sciences.

In a report card released Wednesday looking at 100 leading colleges, ACTA gave an "F" to nine of the U.S. News top 20 national universities, while awarding "A"s to five schools: West Point, Texas A&M, University of Texas, University of Arkansas and City University of New York-Brooklyn College.

ACTA said it found almost 90 percent of the leading schools fail to require a survey course in American government or history. Just two . . . require economics. Meanwhile, the report card not-so-gently mocks courses . . . like Wesleyan University's "Physics for Future Presidents" and Stanford's ". . . Renaissance of a Hawaiian Musical Tradition."

The average cost for the five schools that require six core subjects and thus received an A: $5,400. The average cost for those receiving an "F" for no such requirements: $37,700.
In short, forget the rankings. Iowa is as good as any school -- if a student is willing to approach college education as the serious and rewarding thing it is: an asset they will be drawing upon, and supported by, for the remainder of their life. If they're not self-motivated and disciplined, forget it; they won't do a very good job of teaching themselves wherever they may be.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

1 comment:

Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to the content of blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that comments unrelated to the essay, such as advertising posing as comments, or with links to unrelated sites, will be removed. That is why one or more of the comments posted on this blog entry are no longer here.

-- Nick