The Ivy Coach Daily

May 3, 2011

College Ranking

Malcom Gladwell believes the college ranking system to be absurd (photo credit: Kris Krüg).

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria sat down with Malcolm Gladwell (author of “Blink,” “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” and “What The Dog Saw”) to discuss the “US News & World Report” college ranking system. In the discussion, Malcolm Gladwell points out that the college ranking system is completely absurd. At Ivy Coach, we happen to disagree and believe that rankings have an important place in American society — particularly college rankings.

Let’s nonetheless explore Malcolm Gladwell’s argument about college rankings in the interest of balanced journalism. Gladwell argues that the rankings compare apples to oranges and is completely biased by an algorithm that is based on opinion rather than fact. According to Gladwell, how one weights certain variables contained in the algorithm completely throws off the results and the weighting is “no science.”

Says Gladwell, “There are real limitations to rankings. You cannot simultaneously rank a very heterogeneous group of objects along a very comprehensive set of criteria.” Do you compare a diamond ring to a cherry flavored candy ring? No. That would be ridiculous. Gladwell goes on, “You can’t simultaneously presume that you want to rank a bunch of different colleges that are extraordinarily different in their mission.”

And then Gladwell makes his now famous Penn State University to Yeshiva University college ranking comparison. After all, both universities are ranked in the same ranking in “US News & World Report.”  “They are presuming Penn State is one point better than Yeshiva. Are you really saying you can take two universities like that and say one school is one point better? Penn State and Yeshiva are both called universities but they have nothing else in common. One is an urban, private, highly selective, religiously oriented campus…very few people go there who are not religious Jews…and then you have Penn State which is a massive public, football-obsessed, highly economically, ethnically, and culturally diverse [school] that is in the middle of a valley in western Pennsylvania. No one sits down and says ‘Am I going to go to Yeshiva or Penn State?’ It doesn’t happen. There is no scale that can rank both of those institutions simultaneously.” While Malcolm Gladwell is entitled to his opinion, every ranking is based on an algorithm that is devised on some level with subjective thinking. To discount the “US News & World Report” rankings because of this is to discount every ranking system ever made. And rankings matter.

While you’re here, check out our related blog on university rankings and our newsletter on college rankings and fantasy sports.

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