Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Will the Real Cornell University Please Stand Up?

By Richard Vedder

There used to be a TV show --To Tell the Truth-- where three individuals appeared claiming to be a certain individual --two were impostors. After each was questioned by the celebrity panel, the host asked them to pick the real person, followed by the request "Will the Real John Doe (or whoever) please stand up."

That show comes to mind somehow when I look at college rankings. Let us look at three of them with respect, first, to Cornell University. The rankings: US News & World Report, Forbes/CCAP, and the American College of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). US News ranks Cornell 15th on its National University list (a list, including the lower tiered schools, that exceeds 250 in number). Forbes ranks Cornell 207 of 600 schools on its list that includes liberal arts colleges and other institutions besides national universities --but it is only 51 among the schools that US News evaluates as national universities, well below its US News ranking. Moreover, Cornell ranks well below Cornell College, a liberal arts college Forbes (and CCAP, which did the rankings) puts 105th. But Forbes assesses Cornell U well compared to ACTA --which uses letter grades and gives Cornell U. an "F".

This illustrates two things. First, tastes and subjective judgments on higher education differ in important ways from one individual to another. Second, and related, the lack of consensus on what constitutes excellence makes assessing things like productivity and efficiency very, very difficult. We cannot agree on what "the bottom line" is and how to measure it. US News stresses inputs into the process of delivering educational services and academic reputation as determined by university officials. Forbes/CCAP stresses student course satisfaction, vocational success, and student finances. ACTA stresses curriculum, and whether students have a good grounding in our heritage and the external verities of a civilized society.

Forbes/CCAP has a great feature (if I may say so myself) that illustrates this point. It has a do-it-yourself feature that lets persons do their own ranking, stressing those variables that they think are important. Perhaps some potential student is worried about campus crime and wants to be with kids with high SAT scores, factors not included in the Forbes/CCAP published rankings, for example. It took me less than three minutes to find a combination of factors that placed Cornell U in the top 10 American universities --well above the US News ranking.

Or take Dartmouth College --ranked in the top dozen national universities by US News, it ranks a so-so 95th on the Forbes/CCAP 600 schools list, and gets a mediocre "C" from ACTA. Moreover, in a new US News category, it is considered the best school in America for undergraduate instruction. Finally, there is Centre College, which Forbes/CCAP places in the top dozen or so schools, and in the top half dozen top liberal arts colleges, well above US News. Why? Kids like their courses, get decent jobs, and do not amass a ton of debt --all non-factors to US News (or ACTA, or, for that matter, Princeton Review).

Speaking of Princeton Review, some kids do want to have fun in college --and that is an important part of going to school for them. College is a consumption item as much as an investment good for many, perhaps a majority of students. For such students who want to both party hard and work hard at a respectable school academically, perhaps DePauw University is a great option, ranking 15th on the Princeton Review party list and in the top 50 on the Forbes/CCAP 600 ranking (higher than Dartmouth or Cornell), and pretty strongly with US News as well.

Does all this variation mean rankings are meaningless, as some colleges allege? No. It means that the "best" ranking varies from individual to individual, and that widely varying tastes make it desirable for the prudent consumer to look at a range of rankings --and use the Forbes/CCAP screener (do-it-yourself ranking). It also shows the lack of consensus about what constitutes excellence, which adds to our difficulty in assessing collegiate performance and efficiency.

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