It is approaching the time of year when high school students will be applying to college and university. That means that rating metrics will again be getting press. Of course there is the standard U. S. News and World Report ratings, which are the biggest, most influential, and among the least dispositive ratings available. (I think a case can be made that nearly every one of the criteria U.S. News uses to rate colleges and universities gives bad, or at least not very instructive, information. Perhaps in a future post I will make that case.)
There are many other ratings, however. Here are two:
1. Forbes.com has released its 2010 “America’s Best Colleges” rankings. Williams, Princeton, Amherst, West Point, and MIT are its top 5, with Stanford, Swarthmore, Harvard, Claremont McKenna, and Yale rounding out the top ten. With the possible exception of Claremont McKenna, the list at the top is not altogether surprising.
More surprises appear outside the top ten. For example: the University of Chicago is only #20, behind the likes of Whitman and Pomona Colleges (U of C is #9 on U.S. News); Dartmouth is #30, Notre Dame is #33, and Penn is #36, all behind Carleton College in Minnesota (#21) and Centre College in Kentucky (#24). Georgetown appears at #52, directly behind Colorado College; Chapel Hill comes in at #62, directly behind Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College; and Johns Hopkins doesn’t appear until #88, directly behind Virginia’s Sweet Briar College.
Forbes arrives at its rankings by claiming to investigate the extent to which colleges and universities meet student needs: “Will my courses be interesting? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree? And once I get out of school, will I get a good job?” They try to get at these factors by considering indirect, and often unscientific, measures, like teacher ratings on RateMyProfessors.com and graduates’ success as indicated by “the number of alumni listed in a Forbes/CCAP list of corporate officers,” but all ratings use indirect and sometimes dubious measures. If thus taken with a grain of salt—and especially if compared with other ratings—this one is interesting and informative.
2. A very different way of evaluating colleges and universities is by the courses they require students to take and the materials they require students to read and study. One attempt to measure undergraduate education in this way is whatwilltheylearn.com, sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. This site allows you to locate schools by name, region, or state, and it grades them on the content of their required curriculum from “A” through “F.” The #1 school on Forbes’s list, Williams, for example, gets an “F” on this rating; my alma mater, Notre Dame, which comes in at 33 on Forbes (and #19 on U.S. News), gets a “B”; and my graduate school, the University of Chicago (#20 on Forbes and #9 on U. S. News), gets a “B” as well.
There were only 16 schools earning an “A” on this list. That list includes Baylor, St. John’s College, the Naval Academy and West Point, Thomas Aquinas College and the University of Dallas; it also, rather surprisingly, includes Kennesaw State University, the University of Arkansas–Fayetteville, and East Tennessee State University.
One of the FAQs they list is: “I’m confused. Are you saying that places like Midwestern State University and Brooklyn College, which get As, offer a better education than institutions like Cornell and Brown, which get Fs?” Their interesting answer:
In terms of their general education curricula, yes. Our report is not intended to offer a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of a university. That some of the best-known colleges earn poor marks for general education doesn’t mean that they don’t do other things well; it means that they are not demonstrating a commitment to a broad-based general education curriculum. Our grades do not place any value on prestige or reputation. Unique among the major college guides, our grades were developed based on applying objective criteria to institutions’ curricula.
Like other ratings, this one too must be taken with a grain of salt. Its criteria are based on a traditional conception of liberal arts, and the extent to which colleges and universities allow undergraduates to avoid taking standard and traditional courses in liberal arts and sciences, they get downgraded. They look for required and substantive courses in composition, literature, American history, foreign language, mathematics, science, and economics—not a bad list, all told, and not a bad idea for what an undergraduate education should include. Indeed, this approximates what most schools already claim they provide for their students; this ranking is evaluating them on their relative success at their stated goals.