All the Colleges That's Fit to Rank

Feeling left out of the college rankings racket, the New York Times published its list. And, like lists from US News World & Report, Washington Monthly, and Money, the New York Times' list appears light on logic and analytical support. Despite the presence of so many list as well as the exhaustive Princeton Review's effort, the Times decided to rank colleges based on their economic diversity. This ranking relies on two measures:

The College Access Index is based on the share of freshmen in recent years who came from low-income families (measured by the share receiving a Pell grant) and on the net price of attendance for low- and middle-income families.

No justification was given for these two measures as opposed to another set of measures. Finally, The Times then set an arbitrary four-year graduation rate of 75% or higher. The measures produce a list that places Vassar, Grinnell, and Swarthmore among the top 10 schools. Other academically elite schools such as the University of California at Berkeley and Washington University fail to make the list because they either fall below the arbitrary 75% cut off, or do not admit many Pell Grant recipients. Inside Higher Education provides more zaniness created by the arbitrariness of the list.

If the Time's list appears rather arbitrary in nature, it - like almost all college lists - are arbitrary by definition. No set of measures could explain why one college appears better than another college. Yet, very few outside of some higher education senior executives question the wisdom of ranking colleges. Rankings are intended to establish preference or order.

A better exercise would to create clusters of colleges based on some measures. Indeed, I have argued for this approach herehere, and would be happy to support a Distinction project in this area.

Rankings of colleges create more chaos than order.