College Rankings as Surrogate for Collective Confusion about the Purpose of Higher Education


None of us would be surprised by the conflicts among various college rating systems.  President Obama’s attempt to clarify what “educational quality” means by outlining a system of ratings based on “value-added” did nothing more than beg the question:  But what kind of value shluld universities and colleges be generating?

The 2017 Washington Monthly college ratings were just published in the September/October issue of the magazine. And because its ratings have some unique elements ensconsed in their methodology, schools unaccustomed to higher ratings from other systems of ratings are sometimes overjoyed by the new rankings, while a few of the frequent stars in college ranking systems are sometimes relegated to much lower ranks by the Washington Monthly. And who can be surprised?  Alter the criteria, and be assured that rankings will change.

The advice all the ranking systems should include in their first explanatory paragraph would say the following among other things:

  1. Spend a lot of time before you compare colleges, thinking about who you wish to become, what our community needs, and the ethical impact of whatever choice you will make.
  2. Examine the methodology on which we rely. If it emphasizes criteria that you value highly, then consider our rankings; if it does not, we wish you well in your college search, but you should search for rankings elsewhere.
  3. Even if our criteria for what a great college experience should be are also your criteria, check the weights attached to the various criteria because if our assigned weights differ from yours, well once again, we urge you to look elsewhere for reliable college rankings.
  4. Do not hesitate to place determinative personal criteria high in making a final choice, if you have reflected long and hard about that criterion.  (A wonderful student left our college last week because “I have never been away from my mother and grandmother so long before; they are the most important parts of my life; I am leaving college and going home.” I would not want to dissuade that decision.)

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