The Princeton Review has released its college rankings (my university topped the party-school list, to my chagrin), and tomorrow Forbes will release its own rankings of America’s institutions, beginning a season of rankings that should get considerable media attention for the next few weeks (if not upended by federal fiscal shenanigans or the like).
Full disclosure: I am one of the nefarious “rankers” myself, as the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which I direct, does the rankings for Forbes. I also maintain cordial relations with Bob Morse, who someone (George Will, I think) said was the most powerful man in collegiate America as the overseer of the US News & World Report rankings.
If this year is typical, university presidents will complain the rankings are awful. They fail to take account of this factor or that, they reward the elite private schools at the expense of the hard-working and often innovative efforts of the public institutions, they do not relate quality to costs and value, etc. Those of us “rankers” are amused, however, when our critics suddenly brag about their rankings when they improve dramatically, or when they are cited in some favorable way.
The rankings are exceedingly popular for a simple reason: They provide useful information, and in relating the quality of institution A to that of rival institution B, the rankings are doing something the colleges are loath to do, namely give us data that help make decisions—on where to go to college, where to donate funds, etc.
The fact that there are multiple rankings is good, too. Readers can compare the rankings themselves, and if a college ranks high with one magazine—say, Washington Monthly—but poorly with another—say, US News—the interested reader may be moved to ascertain why.
It is very true that the best college choice varies from student to student. All rankings, I believe, place Princeton extremely high, but only a small number of students will be admitted there, and some students should truly not apply there because of poor high-school performance, because Princeton does not offer the major the student wants, or perhaps even because of personal tastes, such as a desire to be at a place with a world-class football team. Finances; proximity to girl- or boyfriends; closeness to home; and religious, racial, or gender orientation are but a few other factors in college choice that vary from individual to individual. Since rankings are traditionally of the “one size fits all” variety, they should be only one of many tools parents use in evaluating schools, or for that matter donors use in considering gifts.
If colleges started getting serious about providing real information about what their students do and learn in school, and how they perform afterward, perhaps the need for the existing rankings would be reduced. If all schools, for example, reported data on student performance on the Critical Learning Assessment, or information on time usage and attitudes from the National Survey of Student Engagement, consumers might rely more on this information rather than rankings—and/or the rankings themselves would incorporate this information and get better.
A particularly valuable thing could be done by the federal government at almost no cost—namely, having the IRS provide average earnings data by college for students one, five, and 10 years after graduation. If a large data bank were developed, students and parents (perhaps helped by private entrepreneurs) could devise their own “do it yourself rankings” that are customized to fit their own specific tastes and preferences. If colleges were not so secretive, they would not be as much at the mercy of the ranking organizations as they are now.
The college decision is typically the second-biggest single investment that individuals make, next to buying a house. Often, $100,000 or even $200,000 is involved. When we buy a house or even a car, we inspect it carefully. With houses we may have an outsider evaluate the soundness of the property, and with cars we do a test drive and read magazines like Consumers Reports. But we do not test drive universities. At the very least, we can insist on outside appraisals of the quality of the institution in which we are considering investing heavily. I am proud to be a ranker.