by Max Brantley
Just came from seeing Brian Kelly, editor of U. S. News and World Report, speak at the Clinton School about his magazine’s college issue. You know, the one that ranks the schools and cements prestige. (Not the one that tells you where students are happiest and where they suck the most beer bongs -- that’s Princeton Review.)
A good part of the talk was devoted to a defense of the rankings. Quite a few smaller schools are withholding their data from the magazine in protest of what they see as an unfair attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. Kelly respectfully disagrees, of course. He talked some about the origin of the list -- it started in 1983 -- and how the idea behind it was to collect a wide array of data that colleges were not good at broadcasting. In his view, it’s geared towards helping consumers make a big-time investment.
Although Kelly points out that the magazine does reporting beyond lists, the magazine has been going in the direction of service pieces for awhile. Kelly said he spends 10 percent of his time on the college issue, and he says they’ll be adding a Best Retirement Spots ranking to their rundowns of Best Colleges, Grad Schools, Hospitals, Health Plans, Cars and Trucks, Leaders, and Places to Work in the Federal Government.
Kelly faced a couple of critical questions. Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith, a school that declined to participate in the survey this year, pointed to the relative paucity of minority and poor students in the top tier of the rankings. Kelly’s response: “These are societal issues we play a very small role in.”
Fair enough. U.S. News doesn’t make economic stratification, it just reports it. But the rankings do little to acknowledge that there’s more to college than big business and SAT scores. There’s nothing wrong with pooling data together, but data needs to be used with other sources so students know what they’re actually getting themselves into when they show up on campus. All the talk of numbers tends to obscure the fact that different schools have different qualities.
Within the past few years, Washington Monthly has started its own list, with a focus on income distribution and post-college service. You can quibble with it as much as you can with U.S. News’s, but its methodology--and totally different results--are worth a look. Check it out here.
-- John C. Williams