Students & Parents | General Education

Those Little Lists: What College Rankings Tell Us

WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  August 21, 2009 by Eric Felten

U.S. News & World Report may no longer be printing weekly magazines, but it still has at least one robust franchise keeping what’s left of the enterprise afloat: Yesterday the publication issued its annual ranking of universities and liberal-arts colleges. Ambitious high-school seniors who signed up for advanced placement calculus, honors English, wind ensemble, student government and soup-kitchen volunteering will not be surprised to learn that Harvard, Princeton and Yale are still their top targets. However predictable the listing has become, and however arbitrary the methodology, U.S. News remains the standard arbiter of such things as whether Cornell is more prestigious than Johns Hopkins. (Last year it was Cornell, but this year it’s Johns Hopkins, which slipped ahead to grab the coveted #14 slot.)

No one takes such distinctions seriously—like an 89.7-point wine rating, college rankings are a vain attempt to give clear-cut answers to subjective questions. So why do we care? I suspect that the abiding interest in school rankings reflects our conviction that college is less about getting an education than getting ahead. Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Duke: These are names to conjure a career with. Never mind that it is entirely possible to be a knucklehead at any number of brand-name schools or to waste four years studying postcolonial theory and concrete poetry; with the right sheepskin you will enjoy a lifetime of people assuming you’re smart. Graduate from Podunk U. and who knows when your humble academic origins will come to haunt you? (I’m sorry, where did Sarah Palin get her degree?) For all the social mobility of our society, one’s college is the marker of one’s class. The U.S. News guide is our democratic answer to Debrett’s Peerage.

Which isn’t to say U.S. News is unhelpful to the hopeful trying to sort out what school will be a good fit. As with other guides published by outfits such as the Princeton Review, the one U.S. News puts together goes well beyond simple rankings, breaking out plenty of information about the social and academic flavor of the colleges it rates. Most entertaining are the brief videos on the magazine’s Web site, interviews with some 2,000 students from 175 schools. The character of each campus comes through, even if inadvertently. Take the University of Arizona, where an earnest young woman explains that she loves to study at the school’s library because there is rarely anyone there. Perhaps most telling is the interview with a Princeton undergrad who says: “I think the biggest thing about coming here is that once you graduate you go into an amazing network of alumni who can set you up.”

Goodness knows college connections count—and not just if you’re hoping to land a lucrative Wall Street gig. If your goal in life is to write gags for “The Simpsons” or “30 Rock,” you had better hope you get accepted at Harvard, where your studies should come a distant second to getting on the Lampoon. Go to a nice respectable college in Kentucky, and you’ll be lucky to end up writing interstitial copy for ShamWow ads.

If college is primarily about securing a profitable future, why not just judge schools on that criterion? That’s the thinking behind a recent addition to the campus ranking follies: Forbes magazine has produced a rating system specifically designed to gauge get-ahead-ability. A quarter of a school’s rank is derived from how much money its graduates earn and how many of them are listed (and no, I’m not kidding) in “Who’s Who.” Even so, the top-scoring college in this year’s list was not the most obvious choice.

According to Forbes, the best school in America is the U.S. Military Academy. Given the smarts of the West Pointers I’ve met, I’m inclined to endorse that outcome. But it is really an accident of the magazine’s methodology, which bases a good part of schools’ scores on how much debt graduates are left with and whether they can find the employment to pay it off. Since cadets are educated courtesy of Uncle Sam and the Army has jobs for them at the ready, the academy has a natural advantage over schools offering expensive degrees in, say, cultural agronomy.

But there are college rankings that aim to look at universities through lenses other than prestige or pocketbook. The conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute has for a decade been judging colleges on whether their students react to the word “Chomsky” the way legend has it Hunter Thompson’s dog leapt at “Nixon.” The institute’s guidebook, “Choosing the Right College,” gives high marks to schools with strong core curricula in the liberal arts and weak Departments of Grievance Studies.

The newest entrant in the ranking game is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which has the quaint notion that a university be judged on what it teaches its students. At the group’s Web site,, schools are given grades based on the extent to which students are required to take classes in the core subjects of a general education, such as math, literature, science and history. Their effort to change the focus to learning is no doubt an admirable one, but I suspect that it will have a limited effect. Any grading scale that gives an “A” to the University of Arkansas and an “F” to Yale may prove too contrarian to capture the public imagination.

Which is a shame because the Council has a point. The irony of modern education is that the faster the world moves the more value there is in the dusty old undergraduate curriculum. Train for a specific technology and chances are it will be obsolete before the ink is dry on the diploma. Indulge in the academic fad of the moment and you may find it hard to change your bell-bottomed intellectual wardrobe when styles shift. Who wants an education with an expiration date?


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