Post Academic

Tell us something we don’t know: Gladwell on the U.S. News college rankings

"Malcolm Gladwell" by Kris Krug (Creative Commons license)

So this Malcolm Gladwell piece from The New Yorker (subscription req’d) about the U.S. News college rankings has been kinda making the rounds, if mostly because of who’s writing the piece.  I should begin by explaining that pretty much know little about Gladwell besides whatever’s floating in the cultural ether, except for his Sideshow Bob-like looks and that his speaking honorarium needs to be subsidized by Goldman Sachs or something (reportedly $80,000), so this post makes no comment or critique on his best-selling zeitgeist-tapping works.  But what he has to offer by way of critiquing the U.S. News rankings doesn’t really count as new news, especially to anyone who’s spent a good part of her/his life in academia.

For those of you who can’t get behind The New Yorker paywall, here are the main points:

1. College rankings are no more reliable than car ratings or suicide rate measurements: Or, in other words, there’s no objective measure to why one college is rated higher than another when subjective factors come into play, no matter how authoritative U.S. News tries to make itself appear.  Really, did Gladwell need to make his point about the college rankings by using a clever lede about how consumers of automobiles have different priorities in determining which car is for them or mixing in how cultural influences and the problem of intention complicate what’s defined as a suicide, thereby complicating how suicide rates are measured? The basic point is this: U.S. News has a secret algorithmic formula in determining its rankings, but Gladwell wonders who’s to say why the criteria are weighted the way they are.  That’s simple enough, isn’t it?

More about how Gladwell is right, but not particularly profound, below the fold…

2. The methods behind the rankings are far from objective: Actually, Gladwell offers some really interesting reporting and insights on what goes into the U.S. News rankings, even if the conclusion isn’t anything you didn’t know already.  First, the “reputation” score, which is 22.5% of the final calculation, is derived from surveys that are supposed to be filled out by presidents, provosts, and admissions folks, rating, on a scale of 1 to 5, *every* college listed — that’s 261 of them.  According to Gladwell, only about half of the schools get graded in a typical survey.  Really, the survey is probably done by some assistant or office staff, but who’s to say anyone, no matter how high up, has even heard of all the schools on the list, much less knows anything detailed about most of them.

Second, Gladwell makes a point that those of us post/academics are aware of that might be scandalous to a more general public, namely that salary and faculty status doesn’t correlate with teaching quality.  Gladwell notes that one ambiguous U.S. News criterium in ranking the schools is “student engagement”, which factors in faculty pay as part of assessing whether students are “engaged” or not.  Of course, most of us who’ve been cheap grad student or freeway flyer labor know that the more a professor is paid usually has nothing to do how well or how much they teach.  If anything, it’s probably inversely related, since a named chair and a bigger paycheck usually means less teaching (and more TA work).

3. There’s an underlying ideology to college rankings: In closing, Gladwell takes a page from the go-to move of any humanities grad school paper, playing the “ideology” card.  What makes folks value what he calls the “Yale model” of mystique and selectivity over the “Penn State model” (he interviews that school’s president and uses it as a primary case study) of serving a larger, broader community is ideological, which cooks the books before U.S. News tabulates any spreadsheets.  As Gladwell explains, Yale can’t maximize “efficacy” because its super-exclusive student body also has the least room to grow.  In contrast, Penn State, the least selective school in the top 50, has greater efficacy in graduating more students than would be statistically expected.  So basically, Gladwell’s conclusion is a bit of a cop out: who knows what result is preferable, but we can be sure that the final answers from the U.S. News survey are more or less rigged or predetermined or whatever, because of the ideological concerns that shape the analysis but are never acknowledged.

There’s probably little I would disagree with what Gladwell has to say, but his status in the cultural universe makes his musings appear to be deeper than they are, namely that the U.S. News rankings are flawed.  I mean, any of us who’ve been in grad school could probably prove this point anecdotally with using analogies or pontificating on the nature of rankings: When it comes to “engagement” or “quality of teaching”, many of us know that the difference between classmates of ours who’s an assistant prof at, say, Yale and, say, flagship Penn State and, say, Penn State Erie and, say, no tenure-track job is probably almost nil.  Fortunate or unfortunate, most recent grad students would likely acknowledge that the end product of research and teaching as grad students–a job–has a lot to do timing, networking, bs’ing, luck, since we’re all overqualified to begin with.  And when it comes to the criteria of teaching and engagement, I’d hazard to guess that many of the folks who devote the most to teaching and have the best pedagogical chops and most reps probably aren’t the ones who got the plum positions.

Now if Gladwell wants to unpacks more of the sacred cow ideologies behind academia–the so-called “life of the mind”, meritocracy, unmediated knowledge–that would be something else.  If nothing else, I guess his piece gets people thinking about what the missions of universities are and how they might be rewarded or penalized for pursuing those objectives, which is something to think about.

6 Responses to 'Tell us something we don’t know: Gladwell on the U.S. News college rankings'

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  1. >>Gladwell is right but not particularly profound.

    Too true, to us but here’s the rub: academics should be doing what he’s doing, viz. publishing cultural criticism in extremely well-written, passionate prose, using examples that normal people can understand.

    As I believe Gladwell himself would admit, it’s all about how people perceive you/how you present yourself. if scholars care about society, they should read Gladwell’s stuff to see what works. And has anyone noticed that George Lakoff now a rhetoric expert? And Paul Krugman is talking about power — shouldn’t he read Foucault before getting into that? The humanities are falling behind, here, as scientists and journalists take over.

    My point being that the notion of expertise, like power, is arbitrary. As long as academics refuse to admit that, and thus cut themselves out of the running for being the next Gladwell.

  2. ReadyWriting said,

    Thanks, WorstProfEver, now I have nothing to add.

    I’ve always wondered: How we we get to be a Gladwell? Seriously, I want his job (or Ken Robinson’s, sorry, Sir Ken Robinson’s job of telling people school sucks in an eloquent way). I guess there will always be that tension between winning tenure and wanting to do bigger and better things. Just look at Bloom (any of them, really, Harold or Allan).

  3. Scrivener said,

    I agree with WorstProfEver’s fundamental point, but those examples that prove the “humanities are falling behind”? Lakoff is a linguist and an academic, and I taught some of his earlier books in my literature courses years ago–he was writing about metaphor in language in literature before he turned to politics. And Krugman is an academic economist, who also writes for the NYTimes. There are lots of other people you could point to and say that academics aren’t engaging in the public conversation enough, but those two ain’t them.

  4. Anthea said,

    I’d say hazard a guess that many academics don’t want to engage in public conversation since it’s possibly hard work since they have to deal with the public face to face and not hide behind office doors etc. Don’t many people become academics so they don’t have to deal with people? Just a thought.

  5. Arnold Pan said,

    Thanks, all, for the great comments. Worst Prof, I see your point–I guess I lost sight of the big picture, that it’s good that Gladwell is writing about the topic of college rankings and at least beginning to unpack the ideologies they subscribe to and perpetuate. He’s got a bigger megaphone than academic know-it-alls do, so it’s good when he’s bringing attention to matters that matter to us. I think I just got too hung up on the gimmicky bits about car rankings and suicide rates.

  6. You guys are speaking as if the U.S. News college rankings are some sort of “bragging right” or social status. They are published to help potential students (and possibly their parents) to decide which school would fit them best in their particular situation – nothing more, nothing less.

    Look at it from this perspective and you may see things a little differently – maybe not. Either way, whether the rankings are objective, ideological, reliable or not, they are meant for potential students…that’s all.

    Oneal Degrassi

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