The Folly of Rankings

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

I pick up my dry cleaning, and the owner of the shop (who knows I'm a UVa alumna but not that I don't own a television and don't follow sports) says, "Hey! Virginia! How about that--number one!"

Me: Oh, really? In what, basketball?

Him: Yes, ranked number one to start March Madness this weekend!

Me: Wahoowa!

Friday, March 16, 2018 - afternoon

I'm on the phone with a mom to talk about SAT prep for her second child. Her oldest is at UVa. Using my newfound knowledge from my dry cleaner, I open with, "Hey! Virginia! How about that--number one!" (Why reinvent the wheel?)

Her: Yeah! They play tonight!

Me: Exciting!

Her: Go 'Hoos!

Me: Wahoowa!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

My husband: Did you see that ludicrous display last night? (No, kidding, what he really said was something like, "Oh man, did you hear what happened?")

Me: No, what?

Him: Virginia lost.

Me: Wow. Leave it to the Cavaliers...

Him: First time in history a number one seed has been knocked out by a number 16 seed.

Me: We do love history at UVa. Wahoowa!


I was later told that over 97% of brackets had UVa winning that game. I want to say something to the less-than-three-percent of people out there who chose UMBC (University of Maryland-Baltimore County, not University of a Million Brackets Crushed). So, really, I want to say something to all you Virginia Tech and UMBC alumni out there... Good. For. You.

You knew the rankings, and still you made a choice contrary to what the rankings people thought you should do. Have you ever considered a career as an independent college counselor?

Because what happened in March Madness to Virginia happens in College Admissions Madness. There is a widely known ranking system--that of US News & World Report. People believe in the value of this system. Those who might choose a #16 school over a #1 school or opt for a #56 school over a #41 school may be ridiculed and certainly will be asked to defend their decisions. Yet, for some students, that lower ranked school is actually a much better fit than a higher ranked school, even for students who are accepted to both.

Sometimes, once they get to campus, students who chose that #1 or #41 school wish they had gone to the #16 or #56 school.

But, why are these rankings so unhelpful? Don't they measure how good a college is? Let's look at a few sources of the metrics to answer that question:

  • Undergraduate Academic Reputation makes up 22.5% of a school's ranking score. Two quick problems here: 1) Those giving feedback on colleges' undergraduate academic reputations are college presidents, provosts, and admissions deans, along with select high school counselors. Do you think the president of the University of Montana has an informed opinion on the quality of undergraduate academics at Hood College? ("What's Hood College??" you may be may the president of the University of Montana!); and 2) Where do schools' reputations come from? THE RANKINGS. Completely circular and self-fulfilling, when these people even bother to fill out the evaluation.
  • Faculty Resources makes up 20% of the ranking score, and this part includes both class sizes and faculty pay. Faculty pay? Everything but geography being equal, would a professor be offered the same starting salary at West Virginia University as at the University of San Francisco? The cost of living alone can account for dramatic differences in pay (As of this writing, pay in San Francisco should be about 185% more than pay in Morgantown).
  • Student Selectivity makes up 12.5% of the ranking score. The more people you turn away in admissions, the more selective you are. How to improve this part of your score? Get more people to apply! Call the marketing department; this one's on them. The College Board will chip in by giving out PSAT test-takers' contact information. Students feel flattered by the attention; they apply; they're rejected; selectivity just keeps rising! Win!
  • Financial Resources makes up 10% of the score. The idea is that money spent per student is a good indicator of educational quality... unless that money is being spent on a new stadium, right?
  • Alumni Giving Rate makes up 5% of the score. Let me tell you something: UVa probably just lost some alumni givers and UMBC probably just got some alumni givers on Friday night...based on basketball. Those givers can give $20 or $2,000. What does that say about the educational experience of current undergraduate students?

There are other items that have more merit (like graduation rate), but you can see that a fair chunk of the ranking is made up of nonsensical items which, coincidentally, favor the usual top schools, keeping them on top of the leaderboard so that US News & World Report can make money and keep the lights on for one more year.

A good college is a college that is good for you. Focus on how you fit at a school. You're not a number, so why would you let a number assigned by a media publisher, based on mostly unhelpful metrics, determine where you will spend your formative years in higher education?

It turns out that, sometimes, those who are not ruled by rankings are those who win more in the end.