Who’s Number One?

It’s a matter of what educational model you value more-and here, once again, U.S. News makes its position clear. It gives twice as much weight to selectivity as efficacy. It favors the Yale model over the Penn State model, which means that the Yales of the world will always succeed at the U. S. News rankings because the U.S. News system is designed to reward Yale-ness. By contrast, to the extent that Penn State succeeds at doing a better job of being Penn State- of attracting a diverse group of students and educating them capably-it will only do worse. Rankings are not benign. They enshrine very particular ideologies, and, at a time when American higher education is facing a crisis of accessibility and affordability, we have adopted a de-facto standard of college quality that is uninterested in both of these factors. And why? Because a group of magazine analysts in Washington, D.C., decided twenty years ago to value selectivity over efficacy, to use proxies that scarcely relate to what they’re meant to be proxies for, and to pretend that they can compare a large, diverse, low-cost land-grant university in rural Pennsylvania with a small, expensive, private Jewish university on two campuses in Manhattan.

From The Order of Things by Malcom Gladwell in this week’s issue of The New Yorker.


One thought on “Who’s Number One?

  1. As I similarly commented over on NextGen Economy:

    One major issue with the original article is that it assumed that Penn State was “educating [students] capably”. Given the demonstrable issues with the school’s prioritization of football over all, I think that we can clearly agree that this was not the case.

    The article also ignored two other important parts of the rankings. One important part of any ratings system is transparency, and the methodologies for both Car and Driver and US News have a good degree of that. If they were lacking in that area then the article could have never been written. By exposing their criteria the rankings allow people to compare how closely the rankings align with their own concerns. The other important issue is consistency. As long as the ratings mechanism remains constant over time then winners will tend to float toward the top. Having a history to measure against provides another yard stick by which people can compare the ratings to their own experience. Finally a history will be able to provide “proof” of accuracy as schools that slid can be gauged against other outside factors.

    Given the two factors above, the ratings have matched my own experience, in that the issues I perceived at my own institution were borne out as the school slid in the rankings after I had graduated. Did the value of my degree decrease? yes. Am I unhappy about it? no. The school underwent some radical changes and suffered for it, and the rankings bore this out, as they should.

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