From the Goucher Quarterly, Summer 2007

At just about the time that most people read this column, Americans will have been hit with the annual avalanche of “college rankings.” There will be The Princeton Review, which has, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with the university of the same name and which includes such a large number of colleges in its catalogue of “the best” as to render the honor we share suspect. Then, there’s The Washington Monthly, which purports to rate each place on the basis of its commitment to advancing public service, scientific and humanistic research, and social mobility. Goucher is dead in the water there, because we do not offer an ROTC program-a critical, if puzzling, component of their calculations.

The Atlantic may or may not weigh in again this year. You can count, however, on CollegeProwler’s “Off the Record” guides, PC Magazine’s “Top 20 Wired Colleges,” the Young America’s Foundation’s “Top Ten Conservative Colleges,” and multiple lists both in print and online of the alleged best places for Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos, to name a few.

But nothing is guaranteed to get people in jobs like mine foaming at the mouth more quickly than a mere mention of the annual “Best Colleges” issue from U.S. News and World Report.

And foam we do. The magazine’s suspiciously precise annual rankings of colleges and universities across the country are, to put it mildly, arbitrary, reckless, and manipulable. Indeed, the U.S. News assessment process is itself objectionable-most notably for its “reputational survey,” sent every year to college presidents, chief academic officers, and admissions directors, in which we are asked to assign a one-to-five score to every “comparable” institution in the country. The results of that survey, when compiled, account for 25 percent of the overall quotient that determines each school’s ranking. Not surprisingly, those that rank highest tend to be the best-known and the wealthiest; some actually deserve the notice they get, and others, in my humble opinion, do not.

The editors of U.S. News, who, in terms of copies sold, appear to benefit substantially from the seasonal bout of criticism, insist that they are just performing a public service-helping out families who desperately need information in order to deal with the bewildering marketplace of higher education. No one I know disputes their right to rate colleges as if they were commodities comparable to cars, refrigerators, or HDTV sets. The issues that concern me are the fairness and the usefulness of the rankings-and the extent to which they influence people to make bad decisions for their children.

What most people realize these days (and here I think many students are ahead of their parents) is that there is not just one perfect place for every child to go to college. Indeed, there may be half a dozen or more. The challenge is to identify that group and then make rather subtle comparisons of such factors as geographic region, size of student body, availability and flexibility of majors, prospects for direct contact with faculty members, extracurricular opportunities, the likelihood of exposure to people different from oneself, the values of a campus and its sense of community, and the intangible question of “fit.”

Students should be asking themselves, “Can I see myself here?” for example, or “Does it seem like this college will prepare me well for the next steps in my life?” Those answers are far more important than the one to the question that often lurks in the background: “Will the money my parents spend on tuition buy them bragging rights?”

I happen to believe that-now more than ever, in an era when many people will have multiple careers-a good old-fashioned liberal arts education, with opportunities to sample a variety of disciplines, is the best possible preparation. Add the requirements to be able to write and compute well, to master a foreign language, to consider issues of diversity and environmental sustainability, and to study abroad at least once-not to mention the high likelihood that our students will learn to think and speak on their feet-and I think Goucher has quite a good product to sell.

So how to keep the focus on the constructive, and avoid hypocrisy? (We might have been justifiably accused of that unattractive quality a few years ago, when we turned up in Newsweek as one of the “Twelve Hot Schools” of the year, and the “Most Happy” one at that. We trumpeted that designation from the rooftops.)

For starters, we can encourage more constructive and responsible comparisons. That’s why we are so pleased to be included in Colleges That Change Lives, a compendium of 40 somewhat less-celebrated institutions put together by Loren Pope, former education editor of The New York Times. There we are listed alphabetically, not in rank order on the basis of some absurdly quantitative beauty contest. Among the qualities Mr. Pope is looking for are whether a college empowers students intellectually, whether learning is collaborative rather than competitive, and whether “there is a sense of community and connection that goes well beyond four years of attendance.”

CTCL, as we call it, has sold more than 100,000 copies, and the organization it has spawned holds events around the country that draw many prospective Goucher students. We are happy to participate equally in those events with the other 39 schools.

We have also joined scores of other prominent and prestigious liberal arts colleges across the country in mounting a public protest against the spuriousness of the U.S. News rankings, declaring that we will no longer complete the magazine’s “reputational survey.” (Unlike some other colleges, however, we will continue to submit objective data about ourselves to the magazine-lest it come up with its own “estimates.”)

Additionally, we are cooperating with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and with the Education Conservancy on the development of new, hopefully unbiased instruments for comparison of institutions across the spectrum.

We do not wish, of course, to cut off prospective students and their families from reliable sources of information about the colleges among which they must choose. On the contrary, we want them to be as well-informed as possible, and to evaluate us on our merits and our values.

We simply believe that when it comes to finding the criteria on which such issues may be judged, perhaps we educators might be a little better suited to the task than the editors of the various news magazines, websites, and blogs.