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Dissention in the Ranks

Every year, U.S. News & World Report publishes a widely followed ranking of the nation's best universities, and in doing so it holds these schools hostage by forcing its specious criteria on masses of prospective students hoping to gain admission to the "best" institution.

While MIT is usually ranked among the top handful on this list, the system used by U.S. News emphasizes factors that do not reflect the unique nature of the Institute or any other top school. The magazine arbitrarily decides on a set of criteria and then presents its method as an absolute measure by making spurious distinctions in the importance of different measures of educational quality. For instance, in its rankings this year, it assigned a weight of 20 percent to a school's retention rate; this criterion particularly hurt scientifically-oriented schools, since they generally had lower retention rates than schools of comparable caliber with different emphases. MIT had the 15th highest retention rate among national universities, but this factor represented its worst-rated attribute. Similarly, the California Institute of Technology was ranked ninth overall because it had a retention rate of 82 percent, a value significantly lower than that of other schools in the top 10 slots. However, it gained the top spots in financial and faculty resources, and was demonstrably hurt by the high weight given to retention rate.

Another factor that hurt MIT in the standings was a recently contrived statistic called "value added." U.S. News calculated an expected graduation rate based on test scores and class standing and then compared that value to the actual rate. MIT, Cal Tech, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology all had negative values in this category thereby lowering their overall rankings. This criterion is especially ludicrous since it would reward a school that automatically graduates all of its incoming freshmen.

Overall, the methodology employed by the magazine was scientifically absurd. One of the overall categories U.S. News used to rate schools was student selectivity. In order to create a rating in this area, it compiled an index for each school based on the attributes of the incoming class that year, including test scores, high school class standing, acceptance rate, and yield, or the proportion of those accepted who attend. Denoting acceptance rate and yield as independent factors indicates a statistical illiteracy on the part of the magazine's editors. Schools typically factor in yield when extending offers of admission, so these two statistics are correlated. For instance, MIT typically admits twice the number of students it expects to enroll. If its yield were higher, however, it could afford to award admission to fewer applicants and its acceptance rate would decline, making it appear more selective in these rankings. So, some of the factors actually measure the same attribute twice but are presented by the magazine as different measures of academic quality. The focus on low acceptance rates also hurts the Institute because its applicant pool is somewhat self-selected, making its acceptance rate appear relatively high.

Furthermore, the rankings provide an artificial sense of precision, and they create the impression that there is a significant difference between the top few schools. However, the magazine goes on to group lower ranked schools by tier. It is more likely that schools in lower tiers differ more from one another than those at the very top, which are separated by mere fractions of a point in the magazine's composite index.

The low ranking of the Institute is not necessarily undeserved. There may well be solid reasons that the Institute should be ranked lower than some of its Ivy League peers even though many consider it the premiere technical institution. MIT may fail to give its students as well-rounded an experience as the Ivies ranked above it in the survey. The ranking system itself is flawed beyond repair, and it is indeed shameful that students devoted to scientific reason must submit to such a ridiculously constructed system.