has newsweek produced the stupidest college ranking ever?

As long time readers know, I believe that most college rankings are garbage because they use dubious measures of performance and quality. Also, the leading magazines tend to cherry pick data so that a handful of schools (H/Y/P and Stanford) are always on top. For example, there’s an old Slate article on how Cal Tech, perhaps the most elite science college in the world, routinely gets shafted. Then we get to the issue of bad data. College administrators are often sloppy or dishonest when submitting data for these rankings.

Bad data, favoritism, and a lack of logic. How could it get any worse? You can depend on Newsweek and the Daily Beast to rise to the occasion. They’ve now produced a ranking of the least rigorous colleges. In their own words:

To pick out the least challenging of the nation’s top colleges, we considered schools that admit students with an average Critical Reading/Math SAT score of at least 1250. We then took into account student opinion, quality and quantity of professors (which directly impacts challenge and workload), and drop-out rate. The total score for each school consisted of several components: College Prowler‘s “Most Manageable Workload” score (40%), student-to-faculty ratio (25%; from the National Center for Education Statistics), and an analysis of student-posted evaluations on (25%; generated by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, an education think tank). Additionally, we plotted each school’s average SAT score for admitted students against its freshman retention rate (percent of first-years who return the following fall; from NCES) to estimate the degree to which each college’s actual retention rate differed from what the correlation would predict. We took the results as a measure of relative ease or difficulty, and factored this in as 10% of the overall score.

You read that right: RateMyProf scores – people voluntarily griping or praising profs. I’d flunk anyone who used that data in an intro research seminar. Some of the data is puzzling. The ratio of freshman SAT’s and retention? Very ambiguous. Retention may be due to many things aside from rigor in the class, such as financial aid or location of the school. Also, schools may teach hard material but allow people to hide or surmount the problems. For example, MIT has a fairly high retention rate because the freshman year is either pass (C or higher) or “no record” (D or F).

The results of the “least rigorous” study? Many top notch engineering schools, which most observers recognize as being very demanding, make the list of the 25 least rigorous schools, such as Rensselear Polytechnic, Illinois-Urbana, and UC Berkeley.* Other schools, which are not known as being easy grades, such as Wisconsin-Madison and Hopkins make the list. This isn’t fun, lighthearted journalism. It’s an embarrassment.

* Disclaimer: I’m a Berkeley graduate. I studied the extremely easy topics of math and engineering. And boy, was it easy!


Written by fabiorojas

September 9, 2011 at 12:53 am

7 Responses

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  1. That ranking is an all-time low. Wow.



    September 9, 2011 at 1:16 am

  2. 65% of the criteria do not sort for unreliable evaluations; 25% is irrelevant to teaching effectiveness; and the remaining uses an inferior predictor of first-year college performance. Personally, I think it’s just another NYC media exercise in tearing down public universities and reinforcing the high status of its editors’ Ivy League degrees. Oh, and Go Bears!



    September 9, 2011 at 4:34 am

  3. […] has newsweek produced the stupidest college ranking ever? « […]


  4. upon first read i don’t even understand how their algorithm measures rigor! then again i am sadly equipped with a lenient rensselaer polytechnic institute education.



    September 9, 2011 at 10:27 pm

  5. As I said, that ranking is garbage – but, for now, I changed my opinion about the ranking,

    Top 25 Highest Rated Universities

    Brigham Young University, UT
    Florida State University, FL
    University of Wisconsin – Madison, WI
    University of Michigan, MI
    University of Georgia, GA
    University of California Berkeley, CA
    (hey – even the bears are in the mix so it’s gotta be right)
    Iowa State University, IA
    James Madison University, VA
    Ohio State University, OH
    Brigham Young University – Idaho, ID
    Northeastern University, MA
    University of Florida, FL
    Georgetown University, DC
    University of North Carolina Wilmington, NC
    Auburn University, AL
    College of Charleston, SC
    University of Northern Iowa, IA
    University of San Diego, CA
    East Carolina University, NC
    University of California Santa Barbara, CA
    College of William and Mary, VA
    University of South Carolina, SC
    Penn State – University Park, PA
    Texas Christian University, TX
    Clemson University, SC



    September 10, 2011 at 1:32 am

  6. I think a lot of these polls enjoy being iconoclastic. I remember one that had Stanford’s business school ranked in the 40s. Okay, you don’t have to patronize the big shot schools, but really…….. I suppose the desire to anger people and get attention allows such journalists to ignore what would seem to be obvious face validity problems. How easy can Cal be?


    David Hoopes

    September 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm

  7. With 28% of American adults now holding bachelor degrees, it may be that the master’s is the new bachelor’s; so, Big Name Schools do have something to offer “everyone.”

    On the other hand, if you accept the premise that the primary purpose of a college education is the first four years, a truly liberal education according to Mark Van Doren’s monograph, then the Big Name Schools are a waste of time and money. Sure, if you get into the honors program, you may enjoy something of the real feel of a college education. Short of that, you are lectured by grad students not much further down the road than you are.

    I tell young people to find a small liberal arts college in Ohio or Indiana or some place like that., There you have a chance of meeting a professor in a cafe or bar; there the name in the course guide is really the name of the person teaching. Where is St. Johns College in those rankings? The Great Books theory of college education has been sacrificed on the altar of graduate research assistantships. But those small schools still serve: Ashland, Antioch, Oberlin, Baldwin-Wallace, Kenyon, …

    The problems with RateMyProfessors rankings are confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Big schools have lots of students who justify being where they are. I saw The College of Charleston ranked at 16. When I attended in 1967-1968, we had 450 students total with a senior class of about 50. The attrition rate was real. Everyone who wanted to play basketball made the varsity team, regardless of height, because no one was in college become a professional athlete. Tempus fugit. My professors called me “Mr. Marotta” and I called them “Professor” or “Doctor.” We were never on a first name basis, even if we met at The Three Nags and drank beer over philosophy and current events.


    Michael E, Marotta

    September 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm

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