We’re tearing through August at an alarming rate, and you know what that means: the newsstands will be overrun with “Best Colleges” editions very soon. In fact, it’s already happening. Last week, the Princeton Review came out with its Top Party Schools list (my alma mater came out #3, although I don’t think they bothered asking engineering majors), and Forbes came out with its best colleges list (my alma mater came out #3 in the Big 10, but we know how well-connected those Northwestern and Michigan people are). The most popular college ranking list of them all, the US News and World Report Best Colleges list, will hit the newsstands in just a couple of weeks. Parents of high school juniors and seniors will be taking a detour to the magazine aisle at the grocery store to see what the editors have selected as the top schools in the country.
Uggh. I hate, hate, hate these lists. They’re dumb and irrelevant. And I urge you to read them skeptically.
A university is a complex collection of colleges, schools, and departments. Lists that attempt to rank universities almost without exception treat these complicated entities as if they were monolithic institutions. In other words, they attempt to rank universities as if they were high schools.
At a high school, there is much more interconnectedness and interdependence among programs. Students don’t choose a major in high school; instead, they take a set of courses that really comprise a common core of requirements. It makes sense at the high school level, therefore, to evaluate the institution as whole, because shortcomings and strengths are more likely to be pervasive and mutually reinforcing.
A university is nothing like that. Lewis, a small university of 6,500 students, for example, consists of four separate (some might say, very separate) colleges. Each of those colleges have multiple departments (the College of Arts and Sciences, for example, has 20 different departments), each of which may offer multiple academic programs. Although students pursue a general education curriculum, it comprises less than half of their requirements for graduation. How then, can a single measure describe the quality of the education and experience a student will receive at Lewis? Moreover, how can a list enable a prospective student to compare such ill-fitting metrics among multiple institutions?
Many of these lists use selectivity as a measure. Selectivity includes such things as average ACT or SAT score of the incoming class, high school rank, and percentage of students turned away. What do any of those things have to do with the quality of education students receive there? They provide no indication of how much and how well the students learn and how far they advance their skills beyond what they had when they started. Should a university that admits only students who earned a 32 or above on their ACT but sticks them in large lecture halls their first two years be regarded as a better school than one that takes students who earned in the low-to-mid 20’s and limits class size to 25 students or fewer?
Even the way selectivity is calculated is questionable. Many universities have different academic requirements for different colleges. The College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, for example, is extremely selective, with an average incoming ACT of 33. Other colleges at that university don’t have as lofty a requirement. And yet, a single selectivity measure is assigned to this institution. How? Was the mean ACT taken across the entire institution and that value used for the ranking? How is that relevant to someone who wants to pursue an engineering degree instead of a degree in English?
I have friends whose oldest children are at the age where they’re starting to consider where they will go to college. Places like Lewis aren’t even on the list. Even places like the University of Illinois, renowned as one of the world’s top science and engineering schools, isn’t on their list. What I’ve been able to gather from them is that they, like the other students and families at their high schools, take these fundamentally flawed university rankings very seriously.
That’s really too bad, because it potentially deprives their son or daughter a chance to go to a school that will provide them just as good of an education while providing a better fit. Take me, for example. I was salutatorian of my high school class, and I earned a 33 on my ACT. I entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an engineering major, because that’s where all the “really smart” engineer-wannabe’s went, and that’s where the college rankings suggested we all should go. I loved it there. I bleed orange and blue. But did I really receive a better education than my current Computer Science students at Lewis?
No, I did not. I had to teach myself a lot. I had to struggle for 15 to 20 hours on individual homework assignments because there was no help to be found anywhere. I often had to be my own professor. When my students complain to me about how difficult this or that course is, I bite my tongue, because they don’t know what it’s like to take a class where you as the student are responsible for the majority of the teaching. In truth, students don’t make very good self-teachers. What ends up happening is that they piece together what they can and end up with significant gaps in their knowledge that go unfilled because there is no one around who can help fill them.
Is that kind of place better than a place like Lewis for Computer Science? Should the fact that everybody at a world-renowned institution aced the ACT mean that it is necessarily a better place to study Computer Science?
Published university rankings make for great discussion. They fuel harmless but annoying bragging-rights contests, and they make alumni of highly ranked institutions feel better about themselves. Thankfully, they’re not printed on diploma paper, because what a colossal waste that would be.
Choose a school that is a good fit for your son or daughter. Don’t choose a school as if it were a pair of designer jeans.