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Aug 23 2005

The college rankings game

I was walking around the campus yesterday and it was wonderful. The day was cool and sunny and the campus was green and inviting, reinforcing my feeling that over the last fifteen years Case has transformed itself from an ugly-building and surface-parking-lot dominated landscape to one of the most attractive urban campuses in the nation. This is especially so this year with the new dorms that have opened up (I went on the tour last week and was really impressed by their spaciousness and tastefulness) and the new playing fields.

But the best thing was to see all the new and returning students wandering around, many with their parents. Summer is a nice time to be here but nothing beats the sense of liveliness and eager anticipation that I associate with the beginning of a new school year. And to top it all, we have the large incoming class (last I heard it was around 1180) and the SAGES program going full throttle. I am eager to get back in the classroom again.

I got back in my office and discovered that the magazine Washington Monthly announced that it has devised a new method for ranking colleges, using a different set of criteria from those used by the better known US News & World Report. As you may know, the latter magazine revealed its latest rankings just a couple of days ago and Case dropped from 35 last year to 37 this year. This is the season for the rankings to come out and Princeton Review releases its rankings today.

Washington Monthly explains that its criteria are based on what they perceived should be the function of universities: “Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth; and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service.” The accompanying article explains how these criteria were translated into quantifiable measures for each school.

Since these criteria seemed worthwhile, I decided to check out the rankings. Of course, the first thing I looked for was Case’s ranking and was pleasantly surprised that Case ranked at #24. When you compare private universities alone, Case came out at #12 compared with #29 for US News & World Report. Case came ahead of a lot of private universities who regularly rank above us in the other ratings, such as Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, and Rochester.

It seems like it is the “engines of social mobility” and “ethic of service” criteria that caused a lot of shifting of rankings. The former criterion was measured using the number of Pell grants, and this helped the top-tier state universities rise in the rankings since they offer more poor people the chance for education and advancement. The latter criterion was measured by “whether a school devotes a significant part of its federal work study funding to placing students in community service jobs (as the original work study law intended); the percentage of students enrolled in ROTC; and the percentage of graduates currently enrolled in the Peace Corps.” As a result, a lot of state universities rose and private universities dropped. Harvard, for example, was #75 on the service criterion.

So what is one to make of this variability in rankings from magazine to magazine? Does this mean that we should not take them seriously? Not quite. The measures used are useful pieces of information. The fundamental problem arises when multifaceted measures, each possibly worthwhile in itself, are combined to produce a single score for ranking purposes.

I’ll explore this question in subsequent postings.

POST SCRIPT

The British newspaper The Independent finally tallies up the official lies told about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in a London tube station, which I have been writing about. Here is the key section:

What police said – and what really happened

The police claim: A man of “Asian appearance”, behaving suspiciously, is shot dead by police on a Tube train in Stockwell.
The truth: The dead man, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was Brazilian.

The police claim: His shooting was “directly linked” to the investigation into the London bombings.
The truth: Mr de Menezes was an electrician and had nothing to do with the London bombings.

The police claim: Witnesses described him running into the Tube station, vaulting the barriers.
The truth: He walked into the station and picked up a free newspaper before entering with a travel pass. He made his way to the platform. He started to run only when the train arrived.

The police claim: Witnesses said he was wearing an “unseasonable” heavy coat, and Scotland Yard said his clothing had “added to suspicions”.
The truth: Photographs of the body show Mr de Menezes wearing a blue denim jacket.

The police claim: “As I understand the situation the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions” – Sir Ian Blair.
The truth: There was no police challenge.

The police claim: Mr de Menezes ran on to the Tube train, tripped and was shot five times by police as he lay on the floor.
The truth: CCTV footage is said to show Mr de Menezes pausing, looking left and right, and sitting on a seat facing the platform. A police witness says Mr de Menezes stood up when the police arrived. The policeman then pinned his arms to his sides and pushed him back in the seat. Mr de Menezes was then shot 10 times – three of the bullets missed.

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