Rating Educational Institutions

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.


8 thoughts on “Rating Educational Institutions

  1. All students should sign up an agreement whereby they pay as part of their tuition a certain percentage of their personal income to their Alma Mater over the first 15 years of their graduation. And then these papers should be traded in the market… then you would see some educational rating you can write home about!

    1. This proposal & others like it are gaining some acceptance in political quarters, e.g. Britain’s decision to implement a “graduate tax,” but I think it’s quite problematic. The reason is that universities are not supposed to be about training graduates to earn the maximum amount of money in the marketplace – they’re supposed to be about providing a space for true learning and intellectual exploration. If universities were paid according to their graduates’ salaries, they would shut down their humanities and arts departments and force everyone to do accounting and engineering – which are things that I think universities should not be doing at all (there are technical and professional schools for those things).

      1. Perhaps if they “shut down their humanities and arts departments and forced everyone to do accounting and engineering” then the salaries of those dedicated to humanities and arts departments would go up and those to accounting and engineering down???

  2. Not to malign the good folks at Baylor or Dallas, but I would bet the kids at U. of Chicago are challenged more. As you and I both know, the common core is still fairly intense at Chicago (though weaker than it used to be).

    One other thing that places like Chicago and MIT have, but Harvard, Stanford, and many other elite places don’t, is serious grading. At Chicago, kids are relieved to get a B and delighted to get an A. If the Chicago grading system were applied at Harvard, students and their parents would be storming the president’s office. I was friends with a student at Chicago who was a Student Marshall, which is the creme of the crop, and I think he had a 3.4 GPA, or something close to it.

    This grading approach applied in grad school as well, at least in my department (Econ). I was content with Bs, whereas in most grad schools, As are given to almost everyone.

    Also, when I was at Chicago, one of these silly ranking organizations came out with a list of the top 300 places to go in terms of fun. The list was headed by the Florida schools (beer, beaches and babes!), and Chicago came in at number 300, which was a point of extreme pride among the undergrads. They even made T-shirts, showing the bottom 10 fun schools, with U of C highlighted. I should have made my own shirt, since my undergrad institution (BYU) came in at 295 (the reviewers weren’t impressed by the no alcohol, no sex environment). So, I spent 11 years in dreary* places. Can anyone beat that? (other bottom feeders included military schools).

    In fact, taking the inverse of the fun list might not be a bad ranking system for actually getting a good education.

    * Actually, BYU is one of the least dreary places I know of. But if one needs something resembling a frat party to have fun, it would be a tad frustrating.

    1. Speaking of BYU, it got a C on whatwilltheylearn.com. I thought it was interesting because they got a dinged for not requiring a foreign language–despite 70% of BYU students being bilingual. Plus their graduation rate easily exceeds the average school (77%).

      I definitely prefer a school whose students reflect an actual attainment of knowledge rather than a school that requires the students to take a few classes but don’t pass on genuine understanding.

  3. In fact I do not like ratings at all because then, little by little, every HR department in the world will play it safe and go for the best rated… and we will all end up thinking the same, and caught up in another disastrous AAA-bubble.

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