Thursday, June 28, 2007

College Rankings

According to Robert Samuelson "Universities Teach Lesson in Cynicism" by refusing to participate in US News & World Report's college rankings:

...[P]residents of 46 liberal arts colleges have said they will refuse to participate in part of the U.S. News annual survey. The list includes such well-known schools as Barnard and Kenyon. The presidents say the rankings are "misleading" and "do not serve well the interests of prospective

Superficially, this seems a sensible blow against the increasingly frenzied, stress-ridden college admissions process. It isn't.

...First, where students go matters much less than popular wisdom holds.

...Second, the cutthroat competition to get into elite schools is as much among parents as the students.

...Third, the U.S. News rankings actually relieve the stress slightly by enlarging the pool of "elite" schools. Everyone knows that Williams (rank: 1) and Swarthmore (3) are top liberal arts colleges. But the first 10 also include Carleton College (6) in Minnesota, Pomona College (7) in California and Davidson College (10) in North Carolina. The use of semi-objective standards dilutes raw snobbery.

What's so shameful about this campaign against the rankings is its anti-intellectualism. Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence that you dislike or dispute is to supplement it or discredit it with better evidence. The wrong response is to suppress it. And yet, that's the agenda of these college presidents.

By not cooperating with some or all of the U.S. News survey, they hope to sabotage the rankings. They say they'll provide superior information. But they want to control what parents and students see. This is soft censorship.

What their students will learn, if they're paying attention, is a life lesson in cynicism: how eminent authorities cloak their self-interest in high-sounding, deceptive rhetoric.

Full disclosure: This post is shamelessly driven by the fact my undergraduate degree in Economics is from Davidson College.

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