Brandeis’s website is trumpeting a new set of college rankings released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) that has our little ol’ school rated No. 21 among national universities in the United States. And while I typically look at these ranking systems with a skeptical eye, this one is designed to give much more weight to academic results and student satisfaction — in short, the things that actually matter.
The most widely used and well-known college rankings are put out by U.S. News and World Report. Despite their popularity, the rankings serve more as measures of prestige than as actual indicators of academic quality. They heavily weigh criteria like alumni giving and financial resources, categories that are not necessarily correlated to overall academic performance (though they can be indicative) and that put relatively young schools like Brandeis at a disadvane. They also tend to put great value on the quality of incoming classes with metrics like applicant acceptance rate and percene of freshmen graduating in the top 10% of their high school class. While these are indicative of a more accomplished incoming student body, they say nothing about the college’s actual performance. High performances in all of these categories make a university look elite, thus guaranteeing it even more donations and wider pools of applicants. Thus, the highest ranked schools reap the benefits of a cycle that makes it very difficult for lower ranked schools to rise.
How does the non-profit CCAP try to avoid these problems? Its director, Richard Vedder, explains the methodology in Forbes magazine:
Our measures begin with student evaluations posted on Ratemyprofessors.com, a nine-year-old site with 6.8 million student-generated evaluations. We look at college graduation rates (as does U.S. News). We also calculate the percent of students winning awards like Rhodes Scholarships and undergraduate Fulbright travel grants. For vocational success we turn to Who’s Who in America. Though imperfect, it is the only comprehensive listing of professional achievement that includes undergraduate affiliations.
Their criteria are geared towards measuring actual results. The inclusion of Rate My Professors data introduces statistical uncertainty through potential sampling bias, but it also gives actual students a hand in determining how well their college performs. Overall, their model comes much closer to measuring what students searching for a school really want to know.
Does that mean that CCAP has created the definitive guide to judging colleges? Of course not. I think most students are interested in more than just a number when it comes to choosing which school to attend; I know that Brandeis’s combination of location, sensitivity to social issues, a different cultural environment, and a strong academic reputation made it the school for me regardless of whether it’s number 21, 31 (its U.S. News and World Report ranking), or anywhere else. For students who are interested in such rankings, they’ll probably turn to the more famous News and World Report numbers, and if they really want to attend a school with an “elite” reputation, that guide will serve them better anyway. Vedder himself admits that his system is imperfect, so I think it mostly shows that making a definite ranking system is an exercise in futility. That being said, CCAP’s heart is in the right place, and overall, they do a pretty good job. I would recommend CCAP’s rankings as one of many tools for anyone going through the applications process, though the reasons for a college’s position are more helpful than the school’s actual net rating. As for Brandeis’s performance, twenty-first is a very strong showing, and I think the administration is justified in doing a little bragging about it.
Or would you rather have them keep going on about imitation butter?