Once upon a time, college rankings spoke to the very tenets of American ingenuity. When a prospective student's deliberation over where and whether to enroll in a university was predicated on socioeconomic factors or family legacy, there was little need for up-to-date statistical analysis. Later, in midcentury America, as universities proliferated and higher education became more attainable, rankings offered reassurance amid a flood of information -- much of it indecipherable to students and families making decisions from thousands of miles away.
But the world has changed. Universities have changed. We didn't have a choice, and then we didn't have tools to make informed decisions. Now we have both.
This year, the New York Times, the New Yorker and other national publications have devoted considerable real estate to highlighting ranking systems' inherent subjectivity, and universities from California to Texas to New York (and most recently, Emory, here in Georgia) have admitted discrepancies and outright manipulations in their self-reported data. In a culture where rankings hold serious sway, these cases are a big deal -- as well they should be.
I don't propose we condemn the rankings organizations for their modus operandi. Educated consumer decisions are grounded in assessments of value, and in the present economic climate, rankings are, well, valuable. Still, it is incumbent upon us (as students, parents, educators, advisers and members of a participant public) to conduct a rigorous and nuanced evaluation of the life that follows the crucial college choice.
Parents and prospective students today might consider working in reverse, looking first to loan default rates, which are federally managed, ironclad indicators of graduates' viability in the professional market. Weigh effective alumni networks, results-oriented career advisement programs, and state-of-the-art technology and facilities, all of which safeguard the tectonic shift to postgrad life. Inquire about accreditation, the objective and agreed-upon standards and requirements for higher education that assure a university's overall institutional health and capacity for academic excellence. You would want to know if a restaurant complies with regulations set by the department of health. Shouldn't you also know how your university fares?
Still further, opportunities for international study offer a head-start introduction to the nature of our global economy. Professionally-minded curricula and cross-disciplinary course work help students to anticipate the trends and demands of the increasingly collaborative professions they are preparing to join. Partnerships with proven industry leaders develop career networks that will serve students in their immediate futures and beyond. (To wit, SCAD operates an international film festival and a new contemporary art museum, as well as the Collaborative Learning Center and Working Class Studio, which serve to import industry partners to campus and export student-designed goods.)
Relevant resources define the college experience and everything that follows. Comparative data is important, yes, but pulling rank doesn't paint the whole picture.
So while "best of" and top-10 lists may continue to drive our selection of movies, books and restaurants, education is a monumentally different kind of good -- one that has more to offer and, thus, more to measure.
Paula Wallace is president and cofounder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), a member of the Business and Higher Education Council of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and on the Executive committee of Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education (ARCHE).