Rankings mania reached a new low recently when Forbes magazine entered the “best college” sweepstakes. Exalting RateMyProfessors.com and Who’s Who in America as dubious measures of academic quality, the Forbes list comes off more as a parody than any real competition for the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” edition, which has its own well-publicized problems with credible outcomes data.
Once again, greed trumps truth while masquerading as a consumer service. Publishers of these news magazines perceive a large captive market with millions of ignorant parents craving some magical divining rod to help them figure out where to send Jasmine and Jason to college. These publishers completely miss the mark, patronizing the parents and students while maligning many terrific colleges and universities by claiming to measure “academic quality” through using variables that have little to do with teaching and learning.
What’s a “best college” for an aspiring special ed teacher may well be a very different choice from a student who wants to become a mechanical engineer or an artist or a fashion designer or a manager of political campaigns. Many colleges have academic specialties that align with the interests of students who seek out just that kind of program; other colleges have environments where women can flourish, or black students, or Hispanic students, or Catholic or Baptist students.
But the insidious message running through every single one of these lists is that the student’s entire life’s worth (translate: net worth) depends on “getting into” a top tier school --- with the tiers measured by some elite editor’s weird notions of quality --- and the heck with the millions of students who choose colleges that are actually right for them academically, socially, financially and spiritually. What will become of you if you go to a college ranked down in the 400’s in the Forbes list or in the Fourth Tier of U.S. News? The implicit message is that your investment in education in lower-ranked colleges is nearly worthless; better to drop out now and learn how to bag groceries.
The Forbes methodology, like that of U.S. News, reveals a profound bias in favor of wealth and class, and against institutions that have distinctive missions --- especially those that serve low income students and significant populations of minority students. Two notorious pieces of data --- average student debt load at graduation, and the percentage of students graduating in four years --- favor institutions that enroll large proportions of wealthy families. Such families tend to borrow little for college expenses, and students from more privileged backgrounds are the ones most likely to complete college in four years.
Consider the self-supporting 19-year-old, like many of my students at Trinity in Washington, who takes classes by day and works through the night, often while supporting her siblings or children of her own. She might well change from full-time to part-time status during her collegiate years, sometimes taking a semester or two off to recover from her struggle to meet her goals, and often she finishes her degree in six or more years. There’s no ranking category for the number of young single mothers who eventually earn degrees outside of the traditional four-year patterns set by the leisure class generations ago. Neither Forbes nor U.S. News can quantify the profound importance to families and to our nation of the work of colleges and universities that serve working-class students like mine who become staunch pillars of their communities and workplaces with their hard-won education.
Pretending to measure instructional quality, Forbes uses the profoundly scurrilous RateMyProfessors.com for 25 percent of its scoring method. Why stop there? Why not add a category for the number of campus sluts outed on JuicyCampus.com? RateMyProfessors invites just as much vicious gossip and cruel slander while providing no legitimate assessment of excellence in teaching (except for those who think that ratings of “Easy” or “Hard” or “Hot” or “Not” are good ways to judge the quality of collegiate instruction!).
RateMyProfessors.com is a Viacom product through its MTV Networks subsidiary. Seems that Forbes is trying to give a boost to other media companies. Even more questionable is the choice to base another 25 percent of its score on the relative proportion of a college’s alumni listed in Who’s Who in America, one of the greatest sales gimmicks of the publishing world. Mailings to the tens of thousands of people listed in the various Who’s Who directories rank right up there with Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes for most annoying junk mail -- the kind that hints at something vastly more important than the reality of the product. (For a defense of the Forbes rankings, see the related essay today  by Richard Vedder.)
Perhaps trying to be a bit more serious, Forbes also takes into account such rare awards as Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes. While such achievements provide momentary bragging rights among institutions, the stunning elitism of the Forbes editors cavalierly dismisses any student who pursues an unsung career in public service, teaching or health care, ministry or faithful daily service to the economy in corporate life.
We Americans love our lists, and in the right perspective the list-making game can be much fun --- the AFI top 100 movies of all time; Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40; our favorite snack foods. But choosing a college is not like deciding between hot dogs or hamburgers.
Evaluating the best college for any given student is a process that starts with a clear understanding of the student’s own intellectual talents, academic interests and social needs. One of the most important parts of the process occurs when the student has an opportunity to visit the campus, talk with students and faculty, observe courses and get a feel for the “fit” of the campus environment. No list rank-ordered by someone else’s idea of “best” can substitute for the student’s own judgment, after in-person research, of what will really be the best place to learn, live and grow successfully.
One of the greatest strengths of American higher education is its broad diversity of institutional types, from large public campuses to cozy liberal arts colleges, from great historically Black colleges to exceptional community colleges, from colleges specializing in women’s education to remarkable art institutes and universities specializing in science and technology. The perverse tyranny of the list makers tries to homogenize all of us, bleaching out the very different strengths that offer American academic consumers remarkable choices. Rather than promoting quality, the rankings deflate and degrade what’s best about each college by trying to make us all the same.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.