University Rankings: get over it

17Aug07

Update: As I was completing this post, U.S. News & World Report, released their 2008 university rankings. I guess it’s as good a time as any to get in on the blogosphere chatter.

Part of the motivation for this blog is to document the academic differences between the US and UK. In the past I’ve discussed examinations (Part III, GCSE, GTC, A-levels), but there’s one aspect of education here that continues baffle me: the strange fascination with university rankings, or `league tables.’ Some of the popular ones are given below:

Rankings in the US

In the past few years this trend has picked up in the US as well, with the U.S. News & World Report providing undergraduate and graduate rankings, and Newsweek even publishing a ranking of high schools (they also do the universities).

Most American universities dismiss these rankings as a potentially harmful magazine-selling gimmick. They provide an artificial structure for students to make what is ultimately a very personal decision. Here’s a snippit from Shawn Abbott, Director of Admission at Stanford University:

Our hope is that while prospective students might utilize the rankings as a starting point in investigating colleges, they should rely on actual primary research to ultimately select their college of choice. To pick a college based on its chart-placement in a news weekly is pretty reckless. (From an article in the Stanford Daily.)

Bear in mind this is from a university that tends to do very well in such rankings. For the most part, I think American students take the rankings in stride and ultimately believe that the “right university” is a subjective choice. How do you quantify student culture, research advisers, weather, etc.?

League Tables in the UK

In the UK, however, I get the impression that league tables are taken more seriously. I certainly may be misinterpreting it, but things seem a bit different here. People chat when new league tables when they are released, cheering if their uni rises in the ranks and mumbling the names of American schools they’ve never heard of.

Unsurprisingly, Oxbridge usually tops the UK and European lists (Durham made it to the top in 2005). And, for the most part, these universities produce the visible leaders of the day. (Though this is less true these days, and compare to the US.)

My hypothesis, however, is that this isn’t why rankings carry more weight here.

In this country, class matters. Again, this is less true now than it was n (n>0) years ago, but it’s still more true here than in the States where upward mobility is the `American Dream.’ Here there is the a relic idea that class is something one is born into. Oversimplifying it a bit, one might say that English universities are a rite of passage for the upper class while American unversities are a passage way to the upper class. It’s less true now than in yesteryear, but traditions change slowly when your ivory tower is 800 years old.

Sure, the US has the `upper class’ of Harvard and the Ivy League — but most Americans can’t even name the eight universities that compose Ivy League. And while top US schools do have high-profile graduates, they also make huge efforts to reach out to `underrepresented socio-economic minorities.’ This is due in part from a sense of social egalitarianism as well as an increasing demand from students to attend universities whose population reflect that of the wider US.

Oxbridge has tradition, prestige, degrees that carry nearly a thousand years of weight. In England, a prestigious degree is like a good pair of cuff links; it is an accessory to indicate your class. In some respects, the quality of the education is a secondary consideration after the name of the institution granting the degree. This is not to say that Oxbridge doesn’t have fine programs, only that this can sometimes be beside the point.

The idea that some `objective’ (they’re not) or `scientific’ (only in the loosest sense) ranking can assign a numerical value to the quality of a university only reinforces and validates this class hierarchy. The ranking of one’s university becomes an part of one’s identity.

Recently Slashdot has reported that this ranking culture has even infected secondary schools. In short, UK and Australian schools are discouraging students from taking difficult A-level subjects (like math, go figure) so that the school’s overall test scores are better. I have a friend who is now a teacher in an English secondary school who expressed frustration at schools that encouraged struggling students to `give up’ and go to a remedial school to avoid having their exam marks count against the school’s ranking. And why the fuss? Because rankings tie in to school funding, reputation, and the ability to attract even higher-scoring students. All the mean while, education — actual learning — suffers.

Harvard-Envy

Back to universities, however: no matter how they work out the formulae, there’s always one school that at the top of every world league table. This is the school whose students are so embarassed by the raised eyebrows associated with revealing their alma mater that they refer to the act as “dropping the H-bomb.”

(Update: I guess international rankings tend to be friendlier to Harvard than American rankings, as evidenced by the recent 2008 US News tables.)

And so, the result of taking university rankings so seriously is that people get a huge case of Harvard-envy. This is a bit less true for other big-name American schools, but in Cambridge I still got tired of people trying to size me up just because of the relative ranking of where I did my undergraduate degree.

I’ve met people in the bar who have a whole set of overly flattering assumptions about students from famous US schools. When they asked me about PhD programmes, I mentioned that I’d turned down an offer from “the H-bomb,” in part to do research in Durham. They eyed me in utter disbelief, having a hard time believing that there could be research opportunities I could get at Durham that aren’t readily available at big US research universities. I might as well have told them that the sky was falling rather than explain that university rankings might not tell the entire story.

An friend of mine from Cambridge explained to me that this mindset is partially because of the fact that it’s much harder to get into top US schools as an international student. This is true for several reasons: funding (undergrad and postgrad), letters of recommendation from outside of the US research community, differences in how exams are interpreted, etc. But the bottom line is that the standard for international students to get into a fancy US university is much higher than those already educated in the states. As a result, these higher standards are projected onto all students at these universities.

What’s it worth?

There are plenty of cultural differences between the US and the UK, and it’s not my place (or anyone else’s) to make value-judgements about most of these. However, I do believe that this blind acceptance of university rankings as gospel is ultimately harmful to the educational culture.

First of all, the rankings might as well be arbitrary. There is no scientific formula that can capture whether a university is right for you. Taking rankings too seriously may bias you towards a school that, ultimately, doesn’t `fit’ with you academically, personally, or meteorologically (:-)).

Secondly, they can be misrepresentative. For example, one can often find university rankings in “physics,” or even slightly more specific, “particle physics.” But a graduate student isn’t applying to “physics” or “particle physics,” they’re applying to a very specific research group. Are they a theorist or an experimentalist? If they’re a theorist, do they do string theory, beyond the standard model building, collider physics, nuclear theory, string-less quantum gravity, or some unique blend? The point is, a graduate student cares about a very specific subfield (or subfield-of-a-subfield) that can’t be quantified. The top ranked particle physics school may be great at collider physics and experimental physics, but might not do any string theory. A student interested in quantum gravity is better off going to a lower-ranked school that does quantum gravity.

Finally, taking rankings can be harmful to academia. If league tables are taken as the final word on good schools, then there is a strong temptation for universities to adapt themselves to the ranking criteria. I’ve already said that the ranking criteria cannot accurately capture what makes a university `right’ for someone. The situation is much worse when universities ignore these intangibles in favour of placating some magazine editor’s ranking equation. A few years ago Stanford was ranked the `coolest’ school by some teen magazine because it has its own shopping mall on university land. Does this mean that the university should demolish the physics building build a new Nordstrom? (Or should UK sixth forms discourage students taking physics to boost overall A-level performance?)

The worst possible effect is that rankings are taken so seriously that they are reflected upon their graduates. Thus a graduate from Harvale University who spent his/her undergraduate in a drunken stupor might be offered a job over a graduate from Generic-State University who busted her/her ass and is actually qualified.

The Bottom Line

I don’t think I’ve said anything particularly ground-breaking. But the falliability of university rankings is the white elephant in the room that nobody here seems to acknowledge. Even though it can be easy to realize that a university’s ranking doesn’t completely capture it’s worth, it helps to actually read it.

A university’s ranking is just a positive integer that isn’t necessarily meaningful to you.

Yes, the top ranked schools may also be very good at specific things that you may be interested in. But don’t snub off other universities just because they’re not in the top n according to some magazine.

Related Posts

  • CV: Sean Carroll’s How to Choose a Grad School
  • CV: Risa Wechsler’s Reranking Universities
  • Unofficial Stanford Blog on US News Rankings; It seems to be another post that doesn’t quite `get it,’ but the commentary has some thoughts that may be worth a read from a Stanford-centric perspective
  • Ivy Gate Blog’s take, from which the Unofficial Stanford Blog was based. (The blog generally has tongue-in-cheek humour.)
  • Washington Post: on today’s US News rankings.
  • As I finish this post, there’s a lot of chatter related to the 2008 US News rankings… I couldn’t find much beyond the usual local “look how we did” stories, though. Maybe there will be more analysis of the ranking culture in the coming days.
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6 Responses to “University Rankings: get over it”

  1. I’m sick of the rankings undermining American competitiveness by incentivizing institutional behavior that privileges the privileged, undermines equality and fairness, and diverts schools’; priorities from educating students to fudging figures. Am I just ranting here? Maybe. But I try to back it up with some more meat in my op-ed on the Huffington Post today.

  2. ` “It’s irresponsible to rank colleges,” Thacker said. “The rankings imply a degree of precision and authority that is not supported by educational research. They do not measure what really matters in higher education.” ‘

    Link: http://www.stanforddaily.com/article/2007/8/23/stanfordTakesFourthInNationalRankings

  3. Thanks for an interesting article with a US perspective. I chuckled as I once decided to go to Berkeley over “H-bomb” as a graduate student, and decided against taking Part III at Cambridge (I also enjoyed your article on that). I was looking in to the subject of league tables and various other published data to get an idea of how our (very large) School of Maths at Manchester copares with other top maths departments in the UK, and also why the newspaper league tables produce such odd results for mathematics courses/departments.

    The results of my deliberations here http://www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/~bl/maths_league/uk-maths-league-tables.html

  4. Sorry the font was so small on this browser I mis-typed my own name and didnt notice.

  5. 5 Jorge

    To support the theory that schools alter their actions to suit the demands of competitive ranking, I’ll provide my own experiences. I am currently a senior in a senior in an American high school (and I am of Cuban descent). I have done rather well on standardized testing and have grades and involvement to back it up, so during the past year or so I’ve received many scholarship offers from schools based on the criteria of being a high-performing Hispanic–income has yet to be disclosed. The most extreme example was a state university where I live, ranked a close third in the state. They’ve been pushing real hard to rise above the other two schools, and often tout their stark increase in enrollment of national merits (which is the main reason they’re courting me). How have they increased their national merit enrollment? Well, most schools attempting this have already promised me a full-ride and a more simple admissions process, as well as automatic admission to the honors college and other great benefits, such as a free laptop. But this school has offered to give me $10,000 yearly, a laptop, automatic honors college enrollment, admission into academic programs I’ve never heard of, and a special orientation week. The $10,000 yearly would be about enough to pay for a full-ride–but this is IN ADDITION TO FINANCIAL AID. Given my income, I would surely receive a full-ride without this. So, this school wants to pay for my college and provide me with several benefits and an annual stipend of $10,000, while my girlfriend that currently attends the college isn’t receiving sufficient financial aid. It’s ridiculous. (And no, I don’t plan on going there.)


  1. 1 USNews Physics Rankings « Physics: Life doesn't make sense

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