There was notice last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education of a new college ranking developed by a collaboration of four prominent university economists. The list was produced independent of data supplied by colleges themselves, based instead on the “revealed preference” of matriculating students – in head-to-head match-ups between, say, Harvard and Princeton, how many students selected the former and how many the latter? Although the paper itself is only available to subscribers of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, you can read a working version of the paper and see the list here.
This list is certainly provocative but, as the authors acknowledge, not definitive because it is only based on a survey of 3,240 college-bound students. If their method was formally adopted by a consortium of top colleges and universities, it would be relatively easy to compile a much larger database and a more definitive list.
There are a few obvious advantages to the approach advocated in this article. One, it removes the arbitrary distinction in US News & World Report between “national liberal arts colleges” and “national universities.” In terms of student behavior, this distinction has little relevance. It is more accurate to produce a single list of top schools regardless of their Carnegie classification.
A second even greater advantage, touted by the authors of the article, is that their approach largely removes the potential for colleges to manipulate the rankings through their own actions, such as by accepting a large fraction of their class through binding early-decision programs.
For this second reason alone, the approach, or something akin to it, cannot be implemented quickly enough. Do colleges really enjoy the backflips and contortions they tie themselves into trying to gain advantage in the current US News & World Report rankings? Certainly not. They should all band together and endorse this alternate approach.
But will they? It is extremely unlikely and here’s why – although the top ranked schools benefit enormously from the prestige implied in the pecking order in US News & World Report, and although virtually every school in the top 50 spends time and money trying to secure and improve their ranking, at the same time, virtually all the top schools deny the validity of ranking scales whatsoever. They do not believe that you can judge the quality of an education based on a ranking system.
They may be right but in this they part company with their audience. Those who attend top colleges and universities believe rankings are valid. Why? Given the virtual impossibility of understanding the actual value of the education at one institution over another, most families assume that the popularity of an institution is a valid proxy for its quality. They believe that if more students are attracted to one institution over another, that says something valid about the “value” of an education there.
When you listen to these cosumers talk in focus groups, it is hard to completey dismiss their perspective. Indeed, very intelligent and highly educated people, even folks who work at colleges and universities themselves, believe this use of rankings is valid. But colleges and universities are officially invested in the view that rankings are invalid. They at once cow-tow to the rankings through their actions and dismiss them. As long as they behave in this way, there won’t be any reform and, unfortunately, the schools will be left with the status quo, regardless of how much they say they universally dislike it.