Monday, October 05, 2009

Rating the Raters

Guest Post by Lynn O'Shaughnessy*

Here's an assignment that I'd like you to complete in one afternoon:

Rate 262 households in your community on a one-to-five scale. Give exemplary residents the top ranking, while the sort of folks who never take down their Christmas decorations and cheat on their taxes should earn the lowest score.

Yes, it's an absurd exercise, but I did pick 262 for a reason. That's the number of institutions in US News' "national university" category. Every year three administrators from each of these 262 universities are expected to grade their competitors on a one-to-five scale. Yale, for example, is supposed to rate schools like East Tennessee State, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan, as well as its blue-blooded peers. This peer assessment represents the largest weighting in US News' methodology.

While it's easy to dump on US News' flawed beauty contest, families demand rankings. There just haven't been any worth relying on until the Center for College Affordability & Productivity and Forbes began collaborating.

As I mention in an article that I wrote for in which I rate the various college ranking systems, what I like about the CCAP/Forbes effort is that the creators attempt to measure the type of learning taking place in colleges and universities. While that would seem like a no brainer, US News has remained incurious about what happens in classrooms.

CCAP/Forbes also takes a look at the salaries that graduates of 600 top colleges and universities in the survey are earning. Perhaps these results will dispel the ridiculous belief that undergrads who are shut out of Ivy League networking will never make the big bucks.

I find it fascinating to see what happens when you use more meaningful benchmarks to weigh the true worth of a school. Many elite institutions, such as Princeton, Cal Tech and Williams, also crowd near the top of CCAP/Forbes' rankings, but other elites such Cornell, Dartmouth and Penn sink.

If CCAP/Forbes' rankings merely embarrassed some higher-ed sacred cows, I wouldn't find it all that helpful. But the rankings also perform a wonderful job of highlighting many unheralded schools such as Centre, Wabash, Doane, Kalamazoo, Sweet Briar and Wofford colleges that aren't on enough teenagers' radar.

Frankly, Forbes’ America’s Best Colleges is the only ranking system that I can recommend.

*Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and a blogger at and

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