The Cult of Speed

College rankings are a crutch that too many students and families use to avoid a thoughtful search for the right fit, Alan Contreras says.


July 31, 2007

The recent decision by several liberal arts colleges to divorce themselves from U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings process is overdue and, with luck, will lead to a much larger exodus from this particular numbers game. A few schools, perhaps most notably Reed College in Oregon, withdrew years ago, so need not be concerned with the withdrawal symptoms that may affect previously addicted schools.

Why did the ranking notion get such a firm grip on the American college-going population in the first place? Blaming U.S. News for discovering a niche vacuum in the market and filling it with a plausible offering is popular, but doesn’t really answer the underlying question. After all, even respectable academic organizations such as the National Research Council produce rankings so dense with data that the 1995 version weighs over five pounds without the backup material available from the council.

The fact is, people like rankings. What the British call “league tables” appeal to our cultural norms, as though college admissions were a form of baseball, in which there are very few winners and all others are losers. The idea of being the best -- of excellence, if you will -- is not wicked, far from it. Surely colleges should have a desire and respect for excellence as one of their core values. We see little enough of that and should encourage it.

However, the use of rankings in college admissions (and to a lesser extent in the hunt for grad schools and employment as faculty) is in significant part based in another cultural norm of collegiate life, especially in the U.S. That is the need, or at least the desire, for speed. This speed trap means that tens of thousands of parents, and most of their kids heading for college, all have the same list. The result is a set of reverse funnel clouds that attempt to suck the whole upper crust of U.S. high school graduates into the same rather narrow pool of schools. They can’t all get in, which leads to all manner of admission games played by applicants, parents and college admission staff. And everyone, all the time, is in a hurry.

Harry Lewis, now retired from being a dean at Harvard, issued a regular “slow down” letter to incoming undergraduates. A discussion of this letter and why it has become almost a cult classic is set forth in Carl Honore’s recent book In Praise of Slowness. Students are acculturated to want speed and to do too many things. They and their parents want to spend as little time as possible sifting through colleges. Rankings may be a pre-screen for various proxies for quality, but what makes them work is that they are fast. They don’t require looking through tables of data or any kind of contemplation of multiple variables and qualitative overlays, let alone contacting faculty or current students.

Rankings allow students (and especially parents) to pre-sort potential colleges for Little Jane without really finding out a lot about the schools themselves. Especially for the great majority who don’t hire some kind of college-coach to empurple Jane’s rather skeletal resume, this allows the use of supposed experts to make certain decisions that parents don’t have to think about. This saves thought but it also saves acres of time. It is fast. It takes ten minutes to in effect import the U.S. News lists as a decision filter. There is no need to develop your own files -- 40 or 50 of them -- on possible schools.

Almost by definition, less time is allowed for college choices and related decisions the higher up the SAT pyramid we look. Students with a 2.9 GPA don’t have to hurry, they can’t go to Swarthmore anyway and the places they can go are myriad, have never heard of early admission and are willing to let them in late. But at the top, we can almost smell the burnt ground and hear the squeak of trampled lemmings as the funnels get narrower and turn faster.

This panting, elbow-throwing lust for speed in higher education is echoed in other venues. Policy-makers at all levels argue more and more often that students ought to get in and out of college quickly. Why? There are two main arguments. One is that college is expensive. When governments, through state appropriations or federal aid, fund higher education, those governments expect a certain reasonable efficiency in the use of that money for the betterment of society. That is not a crazy argument as long as it remains rooted in reality.

The second argument is more insidious and represents a fundamentally false notion of what higher education is, or should be. That is the idea that students need to be speedy in getting into and out of college because college is job training and people should get into the workforce and start being productive. Therefore college is not a place for dalliance, casual exploration, personal discovery or, heaven forbid, changing one’s mind partway through and starting off in another direction.

In "Our Universities," John Jay Chapman wrote of the perils of making higher education overmechanical in its processes. He noted that colleges risk a “punching of tickets at entrances and exits” in a system “invented by persons who should have been employed in drawing up railroad timetables.” This sense that there is a timetable for learning is one of the unfortunate aspects of the way colleges fit into contemporary society.

Chapman, one of the best observers of education and the workings of politics that the U.S. has ever produced, noted that the channeling of educational energies toward the needs of business had resulted in an infection of the curriculum as well as the timetable:

“It is in vain that you argue with one of our university managers that the aim of a university is to connect the mind of the student with the thought of the ages. He wishes to prepare the student for the life of the day. He regards himself as the Messiah of education. This is just the attitude of the rich men and religious persons who gave endowments to colleges in the Middle Ages. They desired so to mold the imaginations of the young that the young should see life as they themselves saw it.”

Owing to a general thinning of the thought of the ages in today’s job market, Chapman’s evaluation of academic managers, and their funders in the world of politics, remains largely true today.

Speed is the enemy of thought. This is as true in college admissions as in any other decision-making sequence. What should be thoughtful, accomplished in what Robert Grudin in Time and the Art of Living called a “nest in time,” is instead all but mechanized. What limited thought-time is available is devoted mainly to worrying about how to pay for College 1, College 2 or College 3 -- the names and what goes on there hardly matter if the rankings are good enough.

As Grudin wrote of the need for blocks or “nests” of time dedicated to thinking and personal awareness, “to be deprived of such free time is to be exiled from the self.” Surely higher education is about nothing so much as the self, and a more serious consideration of the time required for decisions about college should lead to the resolute abandonment of ranking systems that supposedly save time while circumscribing the self.


Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.


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