Unranking the nations universities

There was a segment on the Today Show this morning about the controversy (that may be a strong word….fluff? dust-up?) regarding the annual college and university rankings. It’s before 8 AM and although I typically try to get a head-start on the day by logging on before 7, I didn’t catch the names of the segment participants and their affiliations. I’ll try to find the clip. One more cup of coffee for me and some Tylenol Sinus. (Updated with link to segment)

Anyway, I’ve talked about this topic before and one of the gentlemen on the segment shared a similar perspective to mine (though he was a bit unrelenting in his desire to dismantle rankings altogether). When I wrote my previous post about this, my point was basically that “top” or “best” is in the eye of the beholder; that when you say “best”, you must point the the specific factors you are measuring (or should that be “measuring”?) and allow for the inevitability that your weighting of those factors really only resonates with those incoming metriculants that care only about looking good on paper or don’t know better than to look at other factors…the soft stuff, like the number of experienced players returning to your O-line (I kid).

I imagine that sending a kid to college is a real challenging process (for both the parents and the kid). I have only lived through it as the kid but have seen my friend Suzanne go through it with her boys. It’s tough to know that you are making the right decision for you. So I do think that the much-publicized school rankings assign a value system that doesn’t work for most. I greatly benefited from the one sentence that my father said to me (that I am sure that he doesn’t remember): “academics is half of your college experience; pick a school where you will also have fun” (Hello USC! Goodbye Purdue and Indiana University…great schools nonetheless). Yeah, one sentence did it for me…I tend to agonize over decisions…agonize! I’m all caught up in what’s going on in my head. For some reason, the “fun” factor and where I felt comfortable snapped me out of it. But not everyone has someone providing Yoda-like one liners that immediately help clarify their decisions. So the temptation to turn to “rankings” is great.

I think that rankings are something, because they may give insight into how the market values an education from an institution on paper (which matters more immediately upon graduation than when it starts to get combined with work experience as part of a job seekers value proposition). So I don’t promote abolishing them altogether. I’m just concerned at how ubiquitous USNews or BusinessWeek or whomever may be in the discussion about this really important life choice. And I wish that there was a way for graduating high school students to evaluate universities on other factors that matter to them, to experience those factors without having to commit to the site visit (because you have to do some filtering to decide which schools to visit).

While subjective factors like the alumni connections, the dining programs and the quality of dorm life may not be leading factors in college selection, they definitely matter. Incidentally, all this goes for selecting a company as well (minus the dorm life…I don’t recommend sleeping at work). I think this is a problem that the marketing departments of universities have to deal with (especially those that are losing students…any students…to other schools…which ones does that not include?). But it’s also something that student decision makers need to take into account. I want to hug all those kids out there having trouble deciding (OK, not really, but I’d shake your hand and buy you a coffee if I could…and I’d wish you luck but you know I don’t believe in that…OK, well, “good luck”).

I guess my point is to tell anyone having a challenging time deciding between schools to open your mind beyond the school rankings; to do your best to experience life at that school (again, not easy, but get to know the schools and ask tons of questions of anyone you can find that went there or currently goes there) and also “academics is half of your college experience; pick a school where you will also have fun”.

 Thanks Dad.



Comments (4)

  1. Bad_Brad says:

    I think a lot of public schools (like the one I went to undergrad at) stuggle between the desire to advance in rankings like this versus the desire to still be accessible to a large portion of the residents of their own state who pay taxes there.  From my standpoint, undergraduate education is fairly similar from school to school, the biggest differences between undergrad schools are going to be the non-academic things – the culture, the level of diversity, the kind of people that you meet, etc.  At the graduate school level, it’s a different story because at that point you are specializing in something, and a given school may or may not have a good prof who specializes in your area of interest.  Just my 2¢.

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Great points. I’ve visited friends at public schools but having gone to a private school (and leaving there with the student loans to show for it), the accessible vibe was different (or at least I assume so). We were more about providing financing to help people come to USC versus keeping ths cost low for in-state students. In state, out of state, didn’t matter; I was fortunate to get some significant scholarship money but still left with a hefty bill to pay.

    I don’t agreee that the academics are the same at the undergrad level amongst all schools, but I would concede that the portion of the decision making pie is bigger around some of the "other" factors at the undergrad level than at the grad school level. At teh grad level, if you care that the food is good, you’ve got bigger problems.

  3. AmyT says:

    Aren’t Dads wonderful? That’s the best advice and sometimes one sentence is all you need.

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    AmyT – it’s weird how somehting like that is so pivotal and you remember it so clearly.  Now if I had made a bad decision, it would have been all his fault 🙂