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Ranking the Rankings

Guest Column
Philip Burrowes

U.S. News and World Report publishes several annual articles dealing with educational institutions, and our beloved MIT is featured prominently in both the undergraduate and graduate university reports. It is a source of pride for many (though probably not most) people attending the Institute to have their university’s stature validated through rigorous, empirical models. Those models are the ever-evolving results of years of research conducted by hundreds of highly educated intellectuals dedicated to a life of knowledge accumulation and the objective evaluation thereof. And it’s all a load of tripe.

Allow me to explain. I am not simply bitter that Harvard was once again ranked higher than MIT in the college rankings released in the September 11th issue of U.S. News, nor has my pride been emasculated by the ignominy of attending a school ranked lower than both Princeton and Yale. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for the ranking system as a tool, as well as U.S. News’ understanding and explanation of their role in the grand scheme of college selection; it never pretends to be the ultimate arbiter on the information. What I refuse to do is acknowledge the rankings as an accurate evaluation of “academic excellence.”

My reasoning does not come from a belief in any intrinsic fault or bias in the data collection (although I haven’t ruled that out; I mean, Princeton?). I do not believe in the premise of an objective understanding of “academic excellence.” Even if the model behind the rankings incorporated hundreds of factors and weighed them all properly, it could still not portray to its readers the value of each rated institution. Before this devolves into an epistemological (or worse yet, metaphysical ... no, I don’t really know what either word means) debate, I would like to note that the rankings do serve a purpose and that my initial indictment of it all as “tripe” had at least a tinge of hyperbole -- ironically an understatement, but I digress.

Think of the college selection process as the residence lottery (forgive me; I’m a freshman and it’s all I know). The rankings then become analogous to the chances of getting into a residence we enjoy (i.e., residential preferences, in theory, although in reality there are many more factors involved in both being selected by a college and receiving a residence assignment than how much you’ll like them). Some people enter the lottery looking for a social, heterogeneous dorm (liberal arts colleges), others simply look for a secluded place to fall asleep once they’re done studying (technology institutes), the few and the proud pledge for that unique, perpetually self-supportive environment (the military), and many are very unsure of which is the choice for them. However, people can often find what they want at their fourth choice just as easily as they could at their first choice, because few places (or people) are as dedicated to one type of person (or place) as they seem.

In a very tenuous and roundabout manner, the same is true of the colleges we choose. Yes, MIT offers a wealth of unique opportunities, such as the selection of UROPs, superior faculty, and a menagerie of architectural themes, but how much worse would many of you have been had you attended an Ivy or even a top-of-the-line state school? You probably have a better chance of succeeding here -- based solely on the type of person who would choose the Institute -- but in reality the quality of the education at even the 49th best school (I suppose I cheated; it’s RPI) could have facilitated success for the average MIT student.

There are still problems with the system U.S. News employs, such as the weight it gives to an institution’s reputation, but I will not attempt to refute the work of experienced professionals until I’ve been here at least a year. Instead I leave you with some personal anecdotal experience with the ranking system. I attended a magnet school which was situated right next to the local high school. Since it’s a magnet school, people from all over the city attended it, and they often held the outlying neighborhood in contempt, especially the local high school. When U.S. News released a list of the best high schools in the nation by region, both my school and the local high school were chosen, much to the surprise of my fellow students, who felt other magnet schools should have made the list.

It turns out the local high school had the second highest state-wide exam averages in the county besides the magnet school, despite not being able to screen prospective students with testing. This year the school sent its first student to MIT in around four decades. So I guess the moral is that we often cannot properly understand the rankings until we’re not the ones being ranked. Sorry, I’m still kind of surprised Princeton was first. I mean, I wouldn’t go to Princeton if you paid me...

Philip Burrowes is a member of the Class of 2004.