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…
U.S. News & World Report definitely seems to have cornered the market for rankings, and it’s probably the only reason why it’s still in business these days! But before you get too excited about the latest “Best Graduate School Rankings”, released today, keep in mind that the Humanities and Social Science rankings are old and not updated. The English rankings, which we know best about, are from 2009, which I guess isn’t so awfully outdated. This might be the only time I show school spirit, but you’ve gotta be kidding me if UCI English is #22 in the country, even though we have a good (though maybe not good enough!) job placement record, with recent grads landing jobs at more highly rated programs like U Virginia, Yale, and UPenn.
So that got me wondering about the criteria of the rankings. According to the “How We Calculated the 2011 Graduate Schools Rankings”, the criteria for ranking the schools is totally subjective! That’s right, not only are pretty much all the liberal arts ratings old, but they rely solely on personal impressions of the quality of the programs:
These rankings are based solely on the ratings of academic experts. This year, we’ve produced new rankings of Ph.D. programs in biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, mathematics, physics, and statistics. In addition to these new rankings, we republish older rankings that are based solely on peer ratings in various health fields, Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences, master’s of public affairs and public policy, master’s of fine arts, and master’s of library and information studies programs.
So even basic and (should be) easy-to-find quantifiable measures like job placement rate, size of fellowship package, average year to degree have no bearing on a program’s quality. These stats would be useful information for any prospective grad student who might not know better and assume USN&WR‘s rankings actually have real merit. Oh, and if the rankings help in any way, it might make more sense to publish them earlier, not on the exact day that grad school decisions are due!
Of course, the methodology behind and the out-of-dateness of the Ph.D. rankings only underscore which programs are the money- makers and attention-grabbers, not only for USN&WR, but also within the institution of the university. The magazine, of course, provides updated rankings in professional programs like Law, Business, Engineering, and Medicine. Oh well, maybe those ratings might be more relevant and useful, especially if you’re a post-academic from a Ph.D. program looking to make a switch into something else.