Nothing you can say can tear my heart away from my guide

Over at Stats.org, Rebecca Goldin has thrown an unfriendly tomato at the Washington Monthly?s college rankings, calling our efforts ?bizarre? and ?absurd.? She also describes the Monthly itself as ?a scrappy political magazine perpetually strapped for cash.? Well, on the latter point, no fair ? give us something we can refute.

But, to return to the former, I think, quite frankly, Dr. Goldin misses the point of the rankings. (Unless she?s talking about our ?desperate bid to attract credulous media coverage and sell magazines,? which, of course, is always a point.) The first indication of the trouble comes when Goldin writes that we have weird metrics ?for distinguishing academic brilliance? and that ?the idea that there are over one hundred better college choices than Cal Tech suggests that the Monthly has demoted common sense and elevated the absurd.?

Hang on now: that ?idea? isn?t one that we?re floating. As the guide explains, we aren?t measuring ?academic brilliance,? if by that one means the quality of the learning (for more on why, see this piece), and we certainly aren?t saying that prospective students have ?one hundred better college choices than Cal Tech.? As we make clear, this isn?t a guide to where you should park your tuition dollars. It?s a guide that offers plaudits to schools that are giving back to the country and attempts view the idea of ?best? through a different prism: not what?s best for you, but best for the country. (In the debate over whether Americans have the ?best? healthcare in the world the same issues arise: ?best? for whom?) You might not like our emphasis?indeed, Goldin does not (?The Washington Monthly?s Misplaced Values? is the heading of one section) ? but that?s really a separate issue from whether we meet our goals.

So do we meet our goals? Well, there’s no doubt that if we had all the data we wanted to have, there?s a lot more that we?d include in our measurements. But any measurements are limited by the simple fact that, as Rummy might say, you go to rankings with the data you have. Overall, I think we did pretty well.

But that doesn?t seem to be what fundamentally gets under Goldin?s skin anyway. Rather, it?s the very goals we set out that seem to bother her. ?Rankings should reflect how good a job a university does at fulfilling its mission,? she informs us, ?and the university mission is not primarily social mobility or community service, but research and education.? I see. I thought the point of our rankings was to challenge precisely such notions, to broaden the university mission and highlight other worthy priorities. Maybe people will agree and maybe they won?t, but anyone who doesn?t care about our priorities doesn?t have to care about our list. For that matter, Dr. Goldin is free to come up with her own priorities and make her own list. Hey ? we did.