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Do You Trust College Rankings? Malcolm Gladwell Weighs In

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell brings his unique perspective to a subject close to all our hearts: College Rankings (subscription required). Known for his quirky take on subjects ranging from “the nature of genius” to “criminal profiling,” Gladwell does a great job of showing how poor an indicator these rankings are for school quality.

The article lays out just how difficult it is to measure the qualities that the rankings use to sort schools. For example, the rankings use “academic engagement” as one measure of a school’s quality. But how exactly does one go about determining which schools have the greatest academic engagement? US News uses several proxy indicators, such as class size and salary pay, to measure this. Yet, as Gladwell explains, these indicators ultimately have little effect on intellectual engagement. What’s more important is teacher quality- something that is notoriously difficult to measure. The problems with the rankings are further compounded when you bring together several of these metrics in order to arrive at a cumulative score for a school. Why is  it that “Faculty Resources” should have more bearing on a school’s quality than “Student Selectivity”?

By now, most people are familiar with criticisms of college rankings. What this article adds is an exhaustive and deep explanation to turn to when you begin to wonder just how much you should use the rankings as you weigh the positives and negatives of different schools. Rankings play to our desire to have an easy way to make a complicated decision. But their specificity is at best delusional. Of course Harvard is a better school overall than Vanderbilt, but what does it mean that Bates is two spots better than Colby?

Yet, despite the criticism, neither prospective students nor college administrators are going to ignore the rankings any time soon. So is there any value to the rankings? I believe there is. Because the rankings have taken on such cultural relevance, they can be a fairly accurate reflection of a school’s reputation. But just how important should school repuation be in a college decision? I’ll tackle that question Thursday.

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