Monday, February 11, 2013

Rank Rankings

So five colleges recently announced that they misreported data to U.S. News & World Report that was used in the magazine's annual college rankings. Some of the bad data came from miscalculations and some came from misunderstood statistics. One college said the bad data came from a flaw in its data-reporting systems that dated back a decade. If I were a parent, I'll feel comfortable sending several years of annual salary to a place that left a data-reporting bug in its software for the last ten years.

There's no indication that the mistaken numbers happened maliciously in most of the cases, but a few are questionable. The story says that folks at Insider Higher Education surveyed admissions officers and 91 percent said they believed that other schools deliberately misreported data to get an edge in the recruitment game. A few even said they believed their own college had done so.

The real problem is that a lot of the ranking formula relies on a school's perceived prestige: That is, a school is ranked highly because, well, everyone knows it's a great school. Why does everyone know that? Because it's ranked highly! Other factors, such as the rates of alumni giving, would seem to have very little to do with what kind of education a school offers. The data the magazine uses to prepare its rankings comes from surveys the schools themselves fill out, and even if some categories are supposed to be strictly data-driven, there are others that have a lot of subjectivity in them, like "peer assessment." That describes how a college is viewed by other colleges similar to it. So Harvard and Yale agree to say each other's really swell, and that helps their rankings. But maybe they also agree to say Dartmouth is basically "Grade 13" of high school, and that pulls Dartmouth down.

I attended a pretty good private college and got a decent liberal arts education, in spite of myself and despite what my transcript would show. A lot of it apparently stuck, but a "conduct report card" like we saw in early grade school might have showed that I lacked any great amount of initiative when it came to my assignments. Would I have been better off had I gone to one of our large state universities or to a small liberal arts college close to home? Maybe so; it's impossible to say, but at least I could have divorced that witch Sallie Mae by now.

And that's the key. Colleges use artificial things like the U.S. News rankings and things that may no longer be accurate, like historical prestige, in order to justify the significant amounts of cash they remove from a family in order to get Junior a diploma that's supposed to get him a job. The rankings may tell someone which diploma is worth more, but it's highly unlikely that they can tell anyone where they'll get a better education. Too much of that depends on the educatee, and U.S. News doesn't have those numbers.

(Full disclosure: My undergrad alma mater, Northwestern University, is actually ranked 12th in the nation in the National Universities category, which gives no weight to the cosmically important category of "fighting Illini communism." My graduate school, Southern Methodist University, is ranked #58 in the same category, although the seminary which is connected to it and which granted my degree is not listed; there is no category for it. The college where I used to work is #26 in the "Regional Universities: West" category; there are 150 colleges listed in this category but many of them are unranked, which means they didn't return complete or accurate data in U.S. News' survey.)

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