Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ranking Shmanking

Just read a fascinating article in which Rebecca Goldin shrewdly dissects the Washington Monthly's Best College List. College rankings are a rather bizarre aspect of American academic life. Not only because they generally don't help all that much in predicting what university life will be like, but because they suggest that different intellectual experiences can be ranked like new car models. "Well, Socrates is a teacher who has high student satisfaction, so we'd give him a 9 there, but his published output is relatively non-existent and his students tend to be less successful later in life than the Sophists." The lists are honestly weirder than that. In fact, I've long said that the US News & World Reports Yearly Ranking of Colleges, the big and important list for American universities, is pretty much worthless. The way they do it includes a lot of interviews with students. So, when I was at William & Mary, they would come around and interviewed harried undergrads towards the middle of the year. I remember one year, the ranking read: "This university is known as 'the bootcamp of academia', largely because of its work load, which is reportedly 'obscene'", obviously quoting from one of those stressed kids! So, don't get the idea that it's incredibly scientific.

Happily, Canadian universities have started refusing to go along with this nonsense. A number of them have told McLean's to 'go hang it, eh!', including the University of Toronto, arguably the best University in the country. (I am required to say that because I still owe them some tuition money) It would be great to see American universities start standing up for themselves as well... universities and not consumer-driven package tours. But, they'll get there. Eventually.

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