OPED: The folly of college rankings
This is the time of year when you wake up and discover the alma mater you cherish and support isn't even in the fourth tier of some expert's widely publicized idea of the best colleges in the nation.
Just when you — having steadily contributed to the institution's welfare since your own graduation, even when you couldn't afford it — were planning to send your kid there for a gazillion dollars a year, some bozo or group of bozos comes along and tells you East Blah U. ranks 450th out of 500 in the business of higher education. But don't worry, the bozos assure the youngsters considering your school: No one in the greasy burger chain training program will ask about grades _ just whether you have a degree.
Indeed, it's the time of the year when college presidents who thought the place they've staked their future on might climb from 300 to 225 — or at least get mentioned as one of the top schools in the southwest corner of lower Missouri for studying physical education — see their school drop 10 spots.
And that school's development office, the one that occupies a converted barn last remodeled in 1930? That team can kiss its $10 million campaign for a proper administration building goodbye.
This is the time of the year when The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and other analyzers of modern higher education insult entire states by telling them the namesake university they so proudly point to as on the cutting edge of research and preparing young men and women for great things — and on which their taxpayers have spent tens of billions of dollars over 200 years — isn't even in the top 100 of the best. Who cares how many Nobel laureates are hanging around, or how many distinguished alumni are being quoted around the globe? How much does the average graduate earn?
Over the years, those compiling these measuring sticks have been nothing if not consistent. The top 50 or so — the top 10, especially — never seems to change. The schools are juggled around a bit but remain predictable, with the Ivy League and East Coast heavily represented and an exception here or there. Where the Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford et al fall depends on the criteria used, but if one drops, it never drops very far.
Forty percent of The Wall Street Journal's ranking is based on "outcome" — mainly how much one earns. If you don't have an engineering school, the chances of your doing well seem to be slim. Purdue University, one of the country's great engineering schools, for instance, places 37th, while its state neighbor, Indiana University, which has a much longer history of liberal academic achievement but no engineering, ranks 128th. The outcome for a Purdue grad is $53,000 annually, and for someone who graduated from Indiana, $45,000, according to the Journal.
Graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can expect to earn $90,400 a year, according to the Journal's figures. MIT ranks second overall behind Stanford, where grads will average less income, $83,400, but enjoy stronger resources, engagement and environment.
What does this all mean? Really, very little.
Americans love lists, particularly those describing the best this and that. Those who compile lists love them too — for they money they make.
Without its annual college rankings, it's doubtful U.S. News, once a respected news magazine, would continue to exist, which it does only in name now.
The truth is that one can receive a quite good undergraduate education at most of the colleges and universities listed in the increasingly ubiquitous rankings. Those who run these institutions should quit worrying about the artificial pecking orders and so should parents, who ought to be more concerned with what fits their offspring best and what they can afford.
— Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.