College Rankings that Are Ridiculous

This time of year is a big season for college rankings. Just last week at the Monthly, for instance, we released our own look at what American colleges are doing for the country.

There are now more than a dozen different rankings for colleges in the United States. This is a positive development. There are a lot of things that go into making a college the “best” and the more measures available the better. If people have more information about schools that helps both high school students and the country itself better understand our institutions and how pubic money is spend.

That being said, last week the Daily Best released its own list. The publication attempted to determine what were the least rigorous reasonably high quality colleges to attend. Want to just cruise by on your way to a degree? Well here you go. Except, oddly, the list turns out to be just terrible.

Something about this seems odd. Here are the schools:

1. SUNY at Binghamton
2. University of Florida
3. University of Wisconsin-Madison
4. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
5. University of Maryland-College Park
6. University of California-San Diego
7. Northeastern University
8. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
9. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
10. The College of New Jersey
11. Pitzer College
12. American University
13. SUNY at Geneseo
14. Gustavus Adolphus College
15. University of California-Los Angeles
16. George Washington University
17. University of Southern California
18. University of California-Berkeley
19. Villanova University
20. University of Pittsburgh
21. Johns Hopkins University
22. Trinity College
23. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
24. Claremont McKenna College
25. University of Rochester

Now I can’t speak to the rigor of, say, the College of New Jersey but at least anecdotally this looks off. Madison, RPI, Berkeley? Johns Hopkins? Are these really the least rigorous universities in America?

That’s certainly not my impression of these schools. Many of them are top research institutions and seem to me pretty rigorous at the undergraduate level. But that’s just a feeling. Maybe I’m wrong.

No, I’m not. There’s actually no reason to think that any of the schools aren’t rigorous. Here’s how the Daily Beast picked the schools:

We… took into account student opinion, quality and quantity of professors (which directly impacts challenge and workload), and drop-out rate. The total score for each school consisted of several components: College Prowler’s “Most Manageable Workload” score (40 percent), student-to-faculty ratio (25 percent; from the National Center for Education Statistics), and an analysis of student-posted evaluations on (25 percent; generated by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, an education think tank). Additionally, we plotted each school’s average SAT score for admitted students against its freshman retention rate (percent of first-years who return the following fall; from NCES) to estimate the degree to which each college’s actual retention rate differed from
what the correlation would predict. We took the results as a measure
of relative ease or difficulty, and factored this in as 10 percent of the
overall score.

What? None of these things really appear to speak to academic rigor.

Coming up with appropriate metrics for college rankings is challenging. Part of this has to do with the different measures of quality we have for education. Some readers took issue with some of the measures we used to determine our rankings. That’s understandable.

College quality determinations are vague. The U.S. News ranking, for instance, essentially attempts to demonstrate what are the fanciest colleges to which to send your child. This sort of thing is essentially ambiguous, and a lot of the input data turn out to be pretty fuzzy. But determining a meaningful ranking isn’t impossible. The actual list the publication comes up with isn’t incredibly off base. Its top schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia) actually probably are pretty fancy places to send your kid, if that’s the sort of thing you’re interested in.

But just because it’s hard to determine quality doesn’t mean any information will do. If one wanted to figure out the rigor of an American college it would be important to look, say, the amount of time the average student spends studying each night, the average length of papers students have to write, and perhaps the GPA of the average student. Information like this is difficult to find but “an analysis of student-posted evaluations on,” and “student-to-faculty ratio” are not appropriate proxies for this sort of information.

Student-to-faculty ratio doesn’t really seem to be about rigor at all (are a lot of professors supposed to indicate the college is easy?). Even that “most manageable workload” measure seems a little misused. SUNY Binghamton, at the top of the Daily Beast’s least rigorous list, actually comes in at 282 on the College Prowler’s manageable workload list (MIT apparently has a more manageable workload).

The least rigorous college list methodology is sort of like if one attempted to determine the country’s fattest colleges by the number of fast food establishments on campus. Sure, that matters, but it would be the weight of the average student that matters most of all.

If one can’t find the best information it’s often necessary to find substitutes. But if only bad substitutes are available it’s probably not worth doing the ranking at all.

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