How to find the hottest…school?


Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion, and that efforts to get people to watch your movie/show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on covers of magazines and included in the various “hot” lists.

The education equivalent of that is THE RANKINGS. Colleges and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placement on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “a lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine the quality of a school.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEO’s. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – and I have no hesitation indicating that on the survey…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

The USNWR surveys are “balanced” by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution. No. Wait. I mean the opposite of that.

One of the biggest factors, for instance, is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money as a huge factor, of course, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re, say, selling magazines to people who expect to see the same names at the top of the list each year.

I doubt, however, anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe that People magazine REALLY knows who the hottest people are in the world?

Very slowly there are some better tools being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes, what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities, and U.S. News has been publishing some of their results as well.

Shameless Plug: among the efforts to provide new and different ways to look at the rankings, three years ago USNWR added a list for the hot “up and coming schools to watch.” I’m not above bragging that Mason has been in the top ten for all three years. What does that mean? No more than the other lists. But, if your college decision is going to come down to just a ranking, I suggest that you might as well use the USNWR “up and coming schools to watch list.” I’m just saying…

Speaking of useless top ten lists, this very amusing list of educational screw ups showed up in my twitter feed courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Send me your suggestions for what should go on that list and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows – maybe we can control THE RANKINGS of the future!

Be seeing you.

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