I want to continue our string of postings on education (here and here) with a discussion on rankings. Rankings are both alluring and dangerous in their simplicity. For U.S. higher education, U.S. News & World Report publishes rankings as a guide for prospective students. And because universities need to attract students, they pursue a higher ranking, sometimes recklessly. At Notre Dame, the reckless and thoughtless pursuit of a higher ranking eliminated pluralism from the economics department. Pursuit of ranking also leads to some bizarre occurrences, such as strictly enforcing 49 person class sizes (to score higher in the “classes under 50” category) and strange accounting measures on who is an alumni (to score higher for “% of alumni who donate”), among others.
Taking actions that seem to waste university resources or decrease the experience of the student may in fact be logical, if it helps the school’s ranking. It is easy for critics of US News and World Report rankings to point out the flaws. The Washington Monthly actually took up the challenge to provide an alternative ranking that better reflected university’s missions to be socially beneficial, as they describe:
Unlike U.S. News and World Report and similar guides, this one asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive—and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs? Every year we lavish billions of tax dollars and other public benefits on institutions of higher learning. This guide asks: Are we getting the most for our money?
You can read the methodology on how they set out to achieve such a ranking, but it basically involves compiling a Community Service Score (which includes how many students do ROTC and Peace Corps, and what % of federal work-study grants go to community service projects) a Research Score ($ spent on research and PhD’s awarded) and a Social Mobility Score (which compares the proportion of students with Pell Grants and overall graduation rates).
You can see their rankings here. The University of Notre Dame actually improves slightly (from #20 in US News) to #19. Princeton drops (from #1 in US News) to #28th. Check it out. See, rankings are alluring, aren’t they?