college rankings are a fraud, but I like princeton review
Maybe that’s a little too harsh. College rankings can be thoughtful and useful but I am often reminded of the poor quality of many rankings. For example, the LA Times education blog (School Me! Adventures in Education) had a recent post on how the US News & World Report college rankings are derived primarily from exclusivity, campus wealth, and prior reputation. The LA Times blog rightfully notes that many college rankings don’t bother to ask the obvious question of *quality* of education or social experience at a college. Why should we care that an elite private college has a 10% acceptance rate? And should we be surprised at all that wealthy schools often have the biggest libraries?
Furthermore, these rankings seem designed to automatically put Harvard, Yale, or Princeton at the top, regardless of the advantages of other elite privates (Chicago, Cal Tech), liberal arts (Amherst, Swarthmore), and major public schools (Berkeley, Michigan). I urge readers to look at an old article in Slate about how Cal Tech – whose students are probably stronger than any Ivy League school – was unceremoniously bumped in 1999 from a top ranking to make way for Harvard/Yale/Princeton. As a Berkeley grad, I was surprised to see my college fluctuate from a high of #5 in the late 1980s, down to around #22 in the late 1990s, even though the college really hadn’t changed much. Bruce Gottlieb, the author of the Slate article, says the following about Cal Tech’s treatment and how the rankings work:
But the real reason Caltech jumped eight spaces this year is that the editors at U.S. News fiddled with the rules. The lead story of the “best colleges” package says that a change in “methodology … helped” make Caltech No. 1. Buried in a sidebar is the flat-out concession that “[t]he effect of the change … was to move [Caltech] into first place.” No “helped” about it. In other words, Caltech didn’t improve this year, and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton didn’t get any worse. If the rules hadn’t changed, HYP would still be ahead. If the rules had changed last year, Caltech would have been on top a year earlier.
The US News ranking seems designed to (a) reinforce the position of HYP as the the most desirable schools & (b) produce poorly designed lists for nervous high school kids and their folks. The US News ranking books tell you that there is more to college than ranking, but aside from showcasing a few non-Ivy League schools each year, does little to back up the rhetoric.
In that spirit, I recommend the Princeton Review’s recent 361 Best Colleges. If you are serious about college quality, this is far superior to the US News & World Report. Princeton Review provides you with basic statistics about competitiveness (average SAT, acceptance rate) and interview clips from students so you get a sense of what the school is like. Also, they actually survey students on how much they liked their education and other experiences. Sure, it’s not a perfect measure, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The book then creates lists of top & bottom 10 – schools that make you study the most/least, schools that have best/worst classroom exeperience, schools with the best/worst food, etc. And surprise – on many important measures, the HYP trio does not come out on top – or even in the top ten. For example, among the colleges with the best classroom teaching, you get a mix of liberal arts colleges and research schools with strong teaching missions (e.g., Chicago). Readers obsessed with rankings might also want to look at the Washington Monthly’s ranking, which emphasizes how much a school helps low income kids move up and whether graduates go into public service. I can only commend Princeton Review & Washington Monthly for thinking outside the box.