Schools Out

Listening to a 50-something write about how great the US News rankings are for high school students is always more than a little rich, but Robert Samuelson goes from rich to totally stupid very, very fast:

You might think that the last group to embrace censorship would be college presidents. After all, they’re interested in expanding knowledge, right? Well, no. The incipient revolt against the college rankings by U.S. News & World Report says otherwise.

Dear God – does Samuelson even know what the word “censorship” means? Look, let’s use an analogy. Let’s say that you own a car dealership, and there’s an organization that ranks car dealerships in your area. To do this, the organization needs information from you. You provide it, but the organization then proceeds to manipulate it in such a way that makes the ratings totally distortionary and worthless. Do you keep giving the organization the info its needs? Of course not – because that’s totally insane.
It’s actually worse than that. The problem’s not just that US News plays fast and loose with the facts – though it does. It’s that US News creates distinctions where there aren’t any or, if there are any, they’re minor. A while back, after Princeton and Harvard had been tied for first for a three years running, Princeton pulled ahead and Harvard took second. Does anyone honestly think that enough changed in a year that Princeton was significantly better than Harvard?
The sad thing is that these rankings matter to a lot of kids. The US has 4,000 colleges, which are difficult to sort through, and having schools ranked is an easy way to narrow the list down. But ranking only makes things worse. Rankings can be gamed, for one thing. More importantly, though, they aren’t very good at suggesting schools for kids. A high school senior who’s interested in working in government would be far better off going to George Washington than to Notre Dame – and yet, while Notre Dame is #20 on the list, George Washington is #52. A wee political junkie might be persuaded by the good folks at US News to go to Notre Dame instead of George Washington, and will be worse off for it.
Oh, but Samuelson has more:

What’s so shameful about this campaign against the rankings is its anti-intellectualism. Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence that you dislike or dispute is to supplement or discredit it with better evidence. The wrong response is to suppress it.

Anti-intellectualism? I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. What’s anti-intellectual is persuading kids that there’s some kind of platonic ideal of college excellence, that US News and US News alone has a formula to determine particular colleges’ proximity to it, and that the difference in proximity makes a dime’s worth of difference in the school’s appropriateness for them as a student.
And yes, I will be a high school senior this August. And yes, I’m already irate about having to deal with stuff like this.

1 thought on “Schools Out

  1. U.S. News & World Report is not the best guide imaginable, to put it concisely. It’s not the “be all and end all,” as my mother would say. There are dozens of other sources more helpful in choosing where you want to go to college if you really have no idea.

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