When Rankings Are Too Honest

The new graduate school rankings are out.

Roughly every decade the National Research Council releases its rankings of American doctorate programs. Unlike undergraduate rankings, which are mostly kinda BS (what’s the fanciest college to send your child?) graduate school rankings are based on slightly more objective information. Academics decide what characteristics doctorate programs should have, and then they rate schools based on the presence of these characteristics. There’s no 25 percent set-aside for ambiguous characteristics like “peer reputation.”

That makes this year’s release rather interesting. The NRC essentially declined to give graduate programs real numerical rankings at all. As Jordan Ellenberg explained in an article for Slate:

In the end, the NRC group couldn’t agree on a uniform ranking. Instead, they offered a range of possible metrics and an interactive tool where users can rank departments via various dimensions endorsed by the NRC or using their own homebrewed measures. This compromise, statistically principled though it may have been, satisfied nobody. After waiting 10 years for the rankings to come out, people wanted their department’s standing to be more definitive than “between 6th and 16th, depending on which metric you choose.”

The new rankings are ultimately probably a better, and more realistic, way to look at graduate programs in the United States. Who’s number one? Well, it all depends on what you think the most important things are.

Still the new rankings are likely to prove more frustrating than refreshing.

Albert Einstein was particularly fond of saying that “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Still, Americans got used to a numerical ranking; it’s hard to take that ranking system away. No one wants to have to go into a tortured explanation of a program’s quality to everyone who asks. It’s obviously rather better to be 4th in the country than 23rd but what’s the use in explaining that a program’s quality can differ by 15 points depending on what you think is important?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer