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Fast '12: Eschew college rankings

The U.S. News and World Report recently released its annual list of America's top universities, and given the intensity of public reaction to Brown's ranking alongside Cornell as the worst in the Ivy League ("No news in U.'s U.S. News ranking," Sept. 14) — a fate certainly worse than death — one would think these rankings were rooted somehow in objective reality. This is a point of view that is wholly without merit. In the future, the University administration should join several other colleges that have rejected the charade of college rankings as a shallow attempt to promote readership masquerading as a scientific measurement.

In doing so, Brown would follow the lead of Reed College, which has consistently decried U.S. News thinly veiled attempt to boost its sales since they began publishing college rankings in 1983. The case for Reed's rejection was bolstered by the Wall Street Journal's 1995 revelation that many colleges were blatantly falsifying the statistics that they provided to U.S. News and other ranking publications in order to present themselves as higher quality schools to the public. For instance, the same Wall Street Journal article pointed out that in submitting data for Money Magazine's college rankings, the New College of the University of Southern Florida "inflated its SAT scores by lopping off the bottom-scoring (6 percent) of students, thereby lifting the average about 40 points."

This reveals the fatal flaw in collegiate ranking schemes: They rely on the institutions themselves to report data honestly. In response to the utter incompetence in data collection displayed by college ranking publications, Reed College announced it would stop submitting information for such rankings altogether. In retaliation for Reed's intransigence, the U.S. News and World Report relegated Reed to the lowest quartile of its rankings, despite the fact that it had previously been consistently hailed by the same publication as one of the best liberal arts schools in the country.

In addition to whether the institution in question has hurt U.S. News editor-in-chief Mort Zuckerman's feelings, the U.S. News and World Report rankings incorporate several other metrics of academic quality that are completely invalid. Chief among them is the reputation metric, which is assessed by surveying university presidents regarding their opinions of the academic quality of competing institutions. This measurement accounts for a quarter of an institution's overall score in the ranking.

Given that it has already been demonstrated that colleges are willing to lie outright about the quality of their students in order to move ahead in the rankings, what assurance is there that university presidents would give their honest opinions about their competitors? Would it not serve an institution's interests better for its president to give unambiguously negative appraisals of peer institutions so as to sabotage their rankings?

If Brown were to abandon college rankings altogether, as Reed and several others have done, then what would be the consequences? Sources within the University argue that rankings affect "public perception" of Brown, and thus the quality of students that the University can attract. Therefore, they say, college rankings are a necessary evil. This assertion raises several questions.

Did the same occur at other institutions that refused to play into U.S. News hands? In the case of Reed, no. Reed continues to attract among the brightest students in the country, despite its abysmal 57th place showing in the 2012 U.S. News rankings. Indeed, Reed ranks third in the country in terms of the percentage of its undergraduates who go on to receive doctoral degrees.

Does Brown really want to attract students who give credence to such an obviously flawed metric as the U.S. News rankings? Brown lauds critical thinking as among its highest virtues, so if a potential applicant is willing to accept the advice of college rankings without looking at the gross statistical incompetence buried just underneath, it is safe to assume that said applicant would not be a good exemplar of the intellectualism that Brown advances as an institution.

Brown should not devote any of its already strained resources to competing in ranking systems that constitute pure theater, designed solely to boost the circulation figures for the publications that conduct them. Furthermore, Brown should withdraw from such rankings altogether, thereby detracting from their prestige and providing additional impetus for peer institutions to do the same. Indeed, if Brown faced reprisals from U.S. News and its imitators for rejecting shoddy statistical practices, it would garner publicity for standing up for the principles of true academic inquiry, which would serve to attract the critical thinkers that the University purports to celebrate.

As Sachi Yokose '12 told The Herald, "I know to take ratings with a grain of salt." I say, do not take them with a grain of salt. Take them with a pillar.

Hunter Fast '12 is a computer science-economics concentrator from Bloomington, Ill.


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