July 19, 2009

Red Letter Daze: Ranking the Rankings

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Editor’s Note: This article refers to 2009 rankings. New rankings are expected to come from U.S. News and World Report in late August.
Another school year begins, and with it the questions: How do I stack up? Where do I fit in? What does he or she think of me? And it’s not only the new freshman faces asking. With the release of yet another onslaught of college rankings, ranging from the traditional U.S. News and World Report to the “irreverent” standings of Radar Magazine, concerns expressed by the Cornell community indicate that the University, itself, is asking similar questions.
A little self-reflection is never a bad thing, and inquiry is a founding principle of the quest for wisdom. Yet such annual college rankings, in their myriad forms, often inspire, along with inferiority complexes, self-doubt.
And such concerns are not unfounded.
Cornell has assumed a number of traits, whether it be “wrapping itself in Ivy,” having “Ivy envy,” being “The Rodney Dangerfield of the Ivy League” or just “the farm school.” The title of “Easiest Ivy to Get Into, but Hardest to Get Out of” is all too hackneyed, and while Jon Stewart may have been kidding when he mouthed “safety school” after introducing an ILR professor, last year Radar Magazine gave Cornell the unprecedented, yet coveted title of “Runner Up” to the “Most Overrated” college (Harvard was the winner).

I Don’t Give a Damn About My Reputation

The administration has taken a tough stance on ranking, most notably through the voice of former provost Biddy Martin. Martin blatantly expressed her dislike of U.S. News’ annual rankings in March in the State of the University Address, calling it one of her least favorite subjects while discussing Cornell’s role in higher education.
“Rankings are based on wealth and manipulating data,” Martin said. “We can worry about our ranking or we can be who we are and take advantage of what makes Cornell unique.”

Selling Out

Radar Magazine’s argument that the only institution that benefits from the rankings is U.S. News itself holds true when looking at the profit and publicity the issue generates.
U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of “America’s Best Colleges” is the better known of the ever-growing number of annual college rankings. As the third ranking newsmagazine in the country (behind Time and Newsweek) USNWR has a circulation of over 2 million. It has been conducting college rankings since 1983, and has collected data from over 1,400 colleges for America’s Best Colleges 2009, according to its website. For the best colleges issue, U.S. News’ sales more than double.

The Numbers Game

A different set of numbers indicate that “subjective” and “temporary” are how the rankings should be assessed.
In 1999, Cornell ILR Professor and Director of Cornell’s Higher Education Institute Ronald G. Ehrenberg, also a trustee, conducted a study that found rankings are correlated with the quality of applicants, acceptance rate and success of a university, a self-perpetuating relationship that keeps the same schools high on the charts.
People pay attention to the rankings, but they mean very little regarding to the quality of an institution, he said.
“At the margin, the rankings influence the application and acceptance of offer decisions of some students so in that sense they are important,” said Ehrenberg.
He cited the unique needs of every student, using his son, a trumpet player who found opportunities to play at Cornell that he would not have had at Yale, as an anecdotal example of how mechanical formulas cannot provide accurate rankings for all students. He addresses this formula in his book Tuition Rising.

Under the Radar

Evan Mulvihill ’09, worked at Radar this summer and witnessed first-hand the process involved in the rankings formulation. …
“For Radar, we were obviously putting a humorous, irreverent bent on the current state of college rankings; that’s not to say that a whole lot of research didn’t go into it,” said Mulvihill.
“A lot is lost in the ranking process, and at some point someone is making a subjective decision about what criteria to weigh more heavily and what criteria to push to the wayside. If your judgment process isn’t in line with that process, then you’re going to end up with a bad fit. So make your own ranking system,” he said.

These are excerpts from an article in Red Letter Daze. Red Letter Daze is the weekend magazine supplement in The Sun.