Friday, August 17, 2007

The yearly fun with numbers

Today, US News & World Report released their annual college rankings. And, as always, there's fallout from it. This NY Times article, for instance, mentions one college administrator who filled out that he didn't know about any of his peer's programs, but gave his own school an outstanding rating. Other anecdotes are told of people knowing that other schools spread donations over multiple years to boost the alumni giving rate, and the like.

I'm sure that the existence of these rankings does alter how some institutions behave. However, I don't think these are all bad ways. My friends and I used to laugh about how our college -- USC -- had bought us by offering far more merit-based scholarships in an effort to boost their rankings. If this was the intent, it's worked; USC is now up to 27th, and it was 44th when I applied. Average SAT scores of the entering class went up substantially while I was there, and presumably have continued to do so. If that's being driven by the rankings, that's fine by me.

On the other hand, people really can take these numbers way too seriously. USC was the second lowest rated school I applied to at the time. I got into schools rated much higher, but didn't feel they were as good of a fit for me. There truly are intangibles which these numbers don't capture.

At the end of the day, I think these numbers are primarily useful for getting a general sense of roughly where a school falls. The differences, however, between schools nearby each other in the rankings are probably pretty small as far as what they will mean for your future. For instance, I felt that I wanted a school in the top 50 or so for undergrad, as that would put me in better standing for a good grad school. I didn't really think, though, that there'd be a big difference in my likelihood of acceptance coming from school 44 as there would have been from school 6. Given that the first grad school I went to was ranked #1 in my subject, it seems like that assumption was valid.

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