Students & Parents | General Education

Rankings don’t tell whole story

TOPEKA CAPITAL-JOURNAL   |  September 20, 2009 by Nicolas Shump

“There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” This well-known phrase has been attributed to Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli and others.

With the recent comments by Gov. Mark Parkinson regarding the ranking of The University of Kansas and other regents schools in the U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best Colleges 2010 guide, I have thought about the meaning behind these words.

When I looked for colleges back in the mid-1980s, the primary guide was Fiske’s Guide to Colleges, which employed a ranking system of one to five stars. Within a few short years, the U.S. News rankings burst onto the scene and became the primary benchmark for measuring the worth of a college or university.

With the Fiske rankings as my guide, I ended up selecting Reed College, which had a five-star ranking. Did I really know that this ranking was accurate and scientific? No, but it seemed authoritative in much the way that the U.S. News rankings appear today.

All schools celebrate the ranking of prominent fields of study and either publicly rejoice or privately grumble over their overall ranking in these various lists. There are a few maverick schools like Reed College that no longer submit data to the rankings and therefore aren’t listed in the U.S. News guide.

However, for a variety of reasons, most public universities and private colleges refuse to join Reed in thumbing their noses at this influential publication. But are their alternatives to the U.S. News rankings?

The answer is yes. Many other publications and organizations have sprung up to provide their own rankings and college guides. I cannot possibly provide any sort of a comprehensive list here, although sites like the University of Illinois College Ranking Home and the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Clearinghouse are good places to peruse various ranking systems.

There are systems I think worth considering, although each has its faults and limitations. One is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn” rankings Schools are given letter grades based on requirements at these schools to teach English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, math and science.

Another is the Washington Monthly College Guide that rates schools “based on their contribution to the public good.” The main criteria are social mobility, research and service.

Both of these ranking systems do offer criteria that seem to be objective and quantifiable. What is interesting about the Washington Monthly Guide is that its list has dramatic differences from the U.S. News guide.

What does this all mean? For me, it means that the best way to “measure” what school is best for you is to visit the school, talk to current students, meet with faculty and trust your intuition about a school. Rankings will never replace your own instincts.


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