February 26, 2011


Malcolm Gladwell, "The Order of Things: What College Rankings Really Tell Us," The New Yorker, February 14 & 21, 2011, at 68-75) (Efficacy versus Selectivity: "One common statistic used to evaluate colleges, for example, is called 'graduation rate performance,' which compares a school's actual graduation rate with its predicted graduation rate given the socioeconomic status and test scores of its incoming freshman class. It is a measure of the school's culture and teachers and institutional support mechanisms. . . ." "Another common statistic for measuring college quality is 'student selectivity.' This reflects variables such as how many of a college's freshman were in the top ten per cent of their high-school class, how high their S.A.T. scores were, and what percentage of applicants a college admits. Selectivity quantifies how accomplished students are when they first arrive." "Each of these statistics matters. . . ." "But no institution can excel at both. . . ." "There is no right answer to how much weight a ranking system should give to these two competing values. It's a matter of which educational model you value more--and here . . . U.S. News makes its position clear. It gives twice as much weight to selectivity as it does to efficacy. . .." Id. at 74. An interesting article, but no surprises for those in the academy, at least those not engaged in self-deception, pretending to aspire to (if not claiming to have, in fact, achieved) both efficacy and selectivity. Where the prospect of consumer fraud comes in is in claiming to be an educational-BMW, when what one is really is a Ford Pinto. In reality, the typical applicant to college, graduate or professional school does not have the full-spectrum of schools to apply. Just as the typical car-buyer is not a potential purchaser of every make and model car. Some car-buyers simply cannot afford a Porsche. Perhaps a Corvette is not the best car to use for pizza delivery. And a Mini Cooper is probably not quite right as the family car for a family of four. And, sex appeal may be important to some car buyers, but fuel efficiency matters more to others. One wantsthe car-ranking that is helpful given what one's needs are in a car. As to college, yes, if one has the money you can fill out applications for admissions to every school. Most applicants, however, apply to a relatively small numbers of schools based on reputation, programs, location (close to home, far from home; big city, suburb, or rural; east coast, west coast, north or south; near preferred outdoor or indoor activities; etc.) price (including financial aid), family connections, etc. So, the question is whether a particular ranking system helps the applicants weigh the relative pluses and minuses of the handful of schools they are interested. What Gladwell has explained is why U.S. News's rankings may not be helpful to those not interested in the elite schools, or those not trying to get into the most-elite school that they can (even if that school is not so elite). That is, the U.S. News's ranking is not all that helpful if the applicant does not place a high value on a school's selectivity and all that that entails. Even on three different ranking systems Gladwell uses to demonstrate different outcomes in the ranking of law schools depending on one's inputs, I suspect that Chicago would probably not make the third-tier of law schools were the ranking heavily weighted with 'being a party school.' Then again, some criteria should manner (e.g., intellectual life), while others should not (e.g., party life). Or, so one would think. And, I suspect that the U.S. News's 'selectivity', etc., is a pretty good,though not perfect, proxy for 'intellectual life.').