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The mismeasure of education

Posted by Arjendu on August 23, 2010

The annual ratings from US News and World Report for the ‘best colleges and universities’ were released recently, and Carleton was rated highly as usual in the general category of ‘best liberal arts college’. It may be worth noting that Forbes also rated us highly, in a mixed group that includes colleges, Universities, and the military academies.

We were also rated as the best college in the nation in US News’s interestingly separated out category of ‘Best Undergraduate Teaching at a Liberal College‘, in a list that includes a remarkably large number of Minnesota Colleges. At least the distinction between this list and the other one from US News clarifies that their methodology for computing rank (and presumably motivations for students to attend college) usually includes things *other* than the teaching. My reaction to this last bit of news was to claim that my job  — as manager of the curriculum in the Associate Dean’s position — was done, and it was time for me to retire, while a faculty colleague was quick to point out that the mere news of my having quit teaching to join the administration seemed to have helped our rankings.

Carleton’s official distaste for such ratings has been stated elsewhere but of course we — in this case the collective rather than the royal we — can’t help but be aware of them, particularly since friends and foes alike forward these rankings (and particularly any change in these rankings) to us, sometimes with long passionate commentary. And when your interlocutor is a valued friend, you listen, and try patiently to explain why the details of such rankings don’t mean much.

Put simply, it makes just about as much sense to obsess over these numerical rankings as it does to try to numerically rank favorite restaurants, or jazz songs, or single malt scotches, or … you get the point. It is a false quantitative-ness about unquantifiable qualities that I’ve seen people deploy in all sorts of situations and to which I am occasionally prey myself, to be honest.

The unquantifiable nature of these things doesn’t mean that there is no comparing these things. Of course there is. I’ve spent lovely evenings exploring different versions of the same song (including different takes by the same artist) or comparing Islay malts to Campbeltowns (or to each other or to itself as it ages …) and it’s pure pleasure to notice the distinction in such things and to talk about it with friends. And even more fun to do the jazz thing and the scotch thing at the same time.

Fine, so with colleges, you don’t get to sip two wee drams side by side, you get to choose one and stick to it. So what? We all know that all matters of import to your self, what you love (or who you love) depends on taste, and fit, and hundreds of uncontrolled variables — your experience is utterly idiosyncratic. The rankings continue to be almost utterly useless in such things.

I would suggest that it might make far more sense for those who rank us colleges to take a different cue from the hospitality industry and instead try to understand whether a place is a ‘Michelin 4-star’ place or a ‘Michelin 3-star’ place. And we could have a grand old time with the trauma of losing a star, or gaining one, or whatever, but boy, wouldn’t that be a lot better?

Beyond this general level of understanding of quality, surely it’s a matter of the specifics of a place, particularly the fit or the feel — whence all those prospective student visits to our campuses after all, it’s not like we don’t know this already. So why go through this farce of ranking?

I’ll leave you with a far more essential reason to reject all rankings that I’ve seen attributed to — among others — Minnesota-born-and-partially-schooled F. Scott Fitzgerald: “What we must decide is perhaps how we are valuable, rather than how valuable we are.”

And now it’s time for that wee dram. I wonder which one I’m in the mood for tonight …


2 Responses to “The mismeasure of education”

  1. Sophie said

    Well, the rankings aren’t just about helping people choose a college – part of the appeal is the ego massage that a high ranking bestows. I chose Carleton because it was the best match for me, and I’ve never regretted it…but I get tired of telling people where I go to school and then having them stare blankly at me until I say, “Oh, it’s a small liberal arts college in Minnesota” (few people on the east coast are familiar with Carleton). Receiving a high ranking on a great big list of schools, however meaningless such a comparison may be, feels validating, and I’m sure that students and faculty at other highly-ranked schools feel the same. (Of course, every year I feel smug about Carleton’s high score, then I feel bad for putting so much emphasis on this superficial number – and then I forget about the damn ranking and go on with my life.)

  2. R said

    The ranking, to some degree, give people more flexibility then the star ratings. It lets you define who your peers are, rather then group A and B being defined for you. (Yes, there is heart ache over the top 50 or 100 or whatever US News and World Report groups them into, so maybe there is the worst of both already.)

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