Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2011 / 7 Elul, 5771
College rankings a useless exercise
By Dan K. Thomasson
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Academic hysteria begins in a few days when U.S. News, the former news magazine now a website dedicated almost solely to giving American college presidents heartburn, releases its new rankings for higher education. In case you're interested the top tier for this year is expected to be about the same as last and the year before and ...
I suspect that David Lawrence, the distinguished founder of a straight forward, accurate weekly report on the affairs of the nation, albeit one less dramatic, colorful and superficial than its better read competitors, is whirling around in his grave at this stilted, questionably honest list compiled by his successors. If you do rush to the newsstand for this latest edition be prepared to go away depressed if:
(A), you went to a state university that with an exception or two is in the Midwest is a cultural wasteland according to these guys and (B); your puny institution is not in the top 30 or so in any category. That is certification that your alma mater is really named Podunk U. and that the actual dollar value of the parchment upon which your degree is written is about all you might expect from the experience.
That may seem a little harsh. But it seems justified considering the one-time magazine's lasting contribution to the masochistic tendencies of the lords of academia, who spend sleepless nights and harried days worrying about the fact their school can't crack the top 10 or even 50. That's not to mention what it does to the confidence of all those just plain folk who thought their state institutions were pretty good only to be told otherwise.
Actually, according to a recent news report, the guy in charge of compiling the list has received a huge number of requests for reassessment throughout the years. The critics of this dubious project first undertaken in 1983 charge that a little squeak or two can grease the way for better ratings the next time out. Whether that is true or not, schools sometimes inexplicably move forward or fall back in position on the list. The latter has happened to such venerated schools as the University of California Berkley, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. Pass the cyanide, please. That, of course, doesn't happen to the perennial top three, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
Those who disdain the U.S. News annual exercise contend that it is based on factors that hardly measure the actual worth of a school. These include acceptance rate, graduation rate, student-to-faculty ratio, alumni giving and impressions of peers. If the percentage of acceptance is low, it appears the rating is better. For instance, the top three have low acceptance rates. However, there is no measurement of the factors that go into their admissions decisions -- legacies, diversity, etc. -- that aren't always based on academic qualifications.
It is great to have a 7-1 student-to-faculty ratio. But how many faculty members are actually teaching or are doing research? Ever hear of graduate assistants? Graduation rates are also difficult gauges. It has been long suspected that once Ivy League students are admitted they seldom are allowed to fail. It just looks bad for the selection process, namely its claim to excellence.
The best-kept secret in academia is that there are 200 schools where the difference in undergraduate education is minimal, where applying oneself to what is offered can produce rewarding results. For more than 20 years as a member of a board of trustees of a 176-year-old liberal arts school, I have been watching youngsters move on to distinguished careers in medicine, journalism, business and teaching. Three nationally recognized colleagues on the board, who unlike me graduated from Franklin College, went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins.
I recently asked a graduating Franklin student where she was headed and she said medical school. When I asked whether she had been accepted anywhere, she smiled and replied yes, Indiana, Johns Hopkins and Harvard. She had a major quality problem. I have not looked at where Franklin ranks in the U. S. News pantheon of excellence. Who cares? The proof is in the graduates.
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