Tag Archives: Edward Fiske

Ten Reasons to Ignore the U.S. News Rankings

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There are certainly some good reasons for
some people to take the U.S. News college rankings seriously. Presidents of
schools that went up a notch or two can trumpet the fact to their trustees
while noting modestly, of course, that “we don’t really pay them any heed.” But
if you are a college-bound student or the parent of one, there are lots of
reasons not to give them any
credence. As a starter, and in the spirit of my editorial friends at U.S. News,
here are my Top 10:

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The Fiske Guide Turns 30

It seems only yesterday that a few colleagues and I gathered every night in the back of the newsroom of New York Times, then on West 43rd Street, to create the first edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It’s hard to believe that the appearance of the 2012 edition this month marks the 30th anniversary!

Today’s Fiske Guide is a lot different than the first edition. It’s a lot bigger – with write-ups of more than 300 of the “best and most interesting” colleges in the country. There is an electronic version, and, most exciting of all, there’s a new iPad app with lots of bells and whistles to streamline the college search process. Once you have identified schools that sound like a good bet, you can use the iPad version of the Fiske Guide to plan your college tour, email admissions departments directly, browse each college’s website and check out competing schools. Unfortunately, you still have to brew your own coffee.

And – get this – there’s even a complete new Mandarin edition for Chinese students who have set their sights on a U.S. college. It’s kind of fun seeing your name in Chinese characters (or at least I think that’s my name).

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Malcolm Gladwell and Those Shaky Rankings

As the author of a college guide that tries to help college-going students identify schools that would be a good “match” for them as individuals, I’ve always had three main gripes with the U.S. News & World Report rankings. First, you can’t quantify the really important factors that go into selecting the right college, such as the quality of student-faculty relations. Second, colleges manipulate the numbers to their own advantage. And finally, the rankings are premised on asking the wrong question. The issue is not what’s the “best” college in the abstract but what’s the best college for you?
At a time when it would seem that every conceivable argument to be made against the U.S. News rankings has been put forward, Malcolm Gladwell has now come along and, in his New Yorker riff on the topic, added some savory spice to the debate. Gladwell makes some conventional arguments. He rightly ridicules the proxies that the magazine uses for academic quality (“Do professors who get paid more money really take their teaching roles more seriously?”), and he joins the familiar chorus of complaints about the use of reputational surveys. College presidents are the last people I would ever consult in order to get a handle on the quality of a competing institution.

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The Achilles Heel of the U.S. News Rankings

In 1983 U.S. News & World Report came up with what Ben Wildavsky, a former education editor at the magazine, described as “a journalistic parlor game.” The magazine had just conducted a successful survey of U.S. leaders to identify the most influential Americans. Why not, the editors asked, use a similar approach to identify the country’s top colleges and universities?

So U.S. News sent surveys to college presidents around the country asking them to pick ten colleges that provided the best undergraduate education in their particular academic niche. The magazine published the results in 1983 and again in 1985, and by 1987 the project had morphed into a free-standing guidebook entitled America’s Best Colleges. “No one imagined that the rankings would become what some consider the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education,” recalled the late Alvin Sanoff, the longtime managing editor of the rankings project.

The gorilla continues to stalk U.S. higher education. Last week Daniel de Vise of the Washington Post reported that “a small but determined” group of college presidents in the Washington-Baltimore area is now boycotting the “peer assessments” questionnaire that U.S. News & World Report sends them every year as part of its process of updating its college rankings. Their protest follows a report last year that another group of college presidents across the country had pledged to do likewise.

It’s easy to understand why college presidents don’t like U.S. News butting into their affairs in the first place and might be inclined not to cooperate at all (as Reed College has done). John Burness, the former communications chief at Duke University, probably spoke for most of higher education when he observed in 2008 that the precision that U.S. News ascribes to its rankings “is, on the face of it, rather silly.”

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The Rankings Go Global

The Times Higher Education Supplement has now come out with its sixth annual listing of the world’s top universities. Harvard continues to top the list, followed by the denizen of that other Cambridge across the Pond, which has now edged out Yale. The big news this year: the number of North American universities in the top 100 dropped from 42 to 36 from last year, while Asian universities are coming on strong.
I typically react to such news items in three stages. First, OMG, American higher education is tanking. Then I begin to fear that U.S. News & World Report copy-cats are taking over the world. Then the left side of my brain checks in and I ask myself whether such international comparisons are worth the bother.
Let’s take these reactions one at a time, not necessarily in chronological order.

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When College Rankings Are A Marketing Ploy

As author of a major college guide, I try to approach college admissions issues from the point of view of what’s best for college-bound high school students and their parents. I speak with lots of such students and their parents every year, and the one topic that is guaranteed to come up is: What should we make of the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings?

Here’s what I tell them.

First, understand the real agenda of college rankings. The main reason that U.S. News compiles and publishes rankings is not to enrich the quality of U.S. higher education but to sell magazines. And there is nothing wrong with this. Americans love rankings, whatever the topic, and (for reasons discussed below) these rankings can be somewhat useful.

But keep in mind that static lists do not sell magazines. If the rankings were the same every year, no family would need to by the updated list for younger brother or sister. Since both the absolute and the relative quality of major colleges and universities evolve only over long periods of time, the best way to generate churn in the rankings is to change the formula. Which is what U.S. News does every year – for reasons both sound and dubious.

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