College Rankings

It’s been a long time since I paid attention to college rankings, but as I’m still getting US News & World Reports via my (late) mother’s subscription (and still will for another year), I was actually flipping through college rankings the other day.  Poor Duke had dropped down to a tie for #9, whereas I think it somehow made it up to 4 or 5 back in my day, when I actually put stock in these things.  Anyway, I came across this critique of the rankings via the facebook page of my friend and colleague Tom Birkland, who put it best:

It’s that time of year again–the time where anyone with more than one social science methods class realizes–and can easily explain–why college ranking systems are universally worthless.

Here’s a couple of the highlights:

1. College rankings are often based on opinion and not actual data
US News & World Report is now producing a list of schools that have the “best undergraduate teaching.” How did they do that? According to their description of their methodology, the magazine “asked top academics as part of the regular U.S. News peer assessment survey to name the schools that they think have faculty with an unusually strong ‘commitment to undergraduate teaching.'” Got that? They measured the quality of teaching at one school by asking people who work at other schools how good the teaching is. It would be like basing the Fortune 500 on just the opinions of other CEOs instead of things like revenue and profit…

But the largest problem with all these college rankings and guides is this: A student’s success or failure in college and in life will ultimately be determined by who they are, not which college they attend. Successful people attended all kinds of colleges – only three CEOs of the top 20 Fortune 500 companies attended “elite” colleges, and 12 of the top 20 attended public colleges.

They also make the argument that it’s better to be a big fish in a smaller pond.  I suspect this is very much true, so long as your pond is a place like UNC or UVA as opposed to an Ivy, not Southwest Missouri State:

But a savvy student might be better off attending a school with a bunch of students who are dumber than he is. Why? A recent study of law school grads found that the correlation between class rank and salary is stronger than the correlation between school prestige and salary. “Under-matching” – that is, attending a law school where you’re smarter than many of your classmates – is likely to result in better grades and a better class rank and a higher salary. Princeton economist Alan Krueger has theorized that this phenomenon may explain why students who get into elite colleges but attend less elite colleges earn as much money as students who attend elite colleges/

Well, then, apparently I made a mistake in going to Duke.  Definitely worth it for the basketball, though.  My sense for a while has been that a smart, motivated student can get a truly top-notch education at any decent university.  It’s a lot easier to coast, though, and not really get a solid education at a non-elite school.  I’ve long felt that the value of a place like Duke is certainly more than what you get at UNC or NCSU, but not nearly as much as the extra financial burden.

UPDATE: Via email, Damon C. was kind enough to inform me that Southwest Missouri State has the best collegiate handball team in the world.  True.  What he neglected to inform me is that as of 2005, they changed their name to Missouri State University.  Apologies to my huge fan base in Missouri.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to College Rankings

  1. Derek says:

    I wonder if your opinion of the value of a degree from Duke vs. NC State (or UNC) would change if you went to NC State and taught at Duke. I’m sure you got a great education at Duke, and most of your friends did as well, but that is probably not a very representative sample of all Duke students. Now as faculty at NC State, you see the students who skate by (and the good ones), the bad faculty members, and all the behind-the-scenes warts of a university that you miss as a student. As someone who went NC State, and now teaches here, it is interesting how my opinions change now that I am on the other side of the lectern.

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