I love Malcolm Gladwell.
I know, I know. He’s a sociologist for plebeians. There are issues with his argumentation and research methods. Blink was 100 pages too long. But I love him. I think he’s an engaging writer who tells me about things I didn’t know before. One of the reasons I like my subscription to The New Yorker is Malcolm Gladwell. I get excited when I see he’s written something new, and I make sure to read his articles when I can.
Last night I read his article in this week’s issue, “The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us.” I teach Junior AP English. This year, I wrote 47 college recommendation letters. 10 of them were for Harvard. In my suburban, upper middle class district, the students “aim high” when it comes to college. And aiming high usually means the top of the US News and World Report’s list of the “Best Colleges.” But of course what does that mean? What does it mean to be the best college?
The college Gladwell uses in parsing the criteria for the list is Penn State. Two of my brightest, favorite students just got in there, and will be attending in the fall. They’re great students who will probably succeed wherever they go, and they will undoubtedly get into “better” schools than Penn State but they’re choosing to go to Penn State. Because they think it is the “best fit” for them (and probably because they’re dating and want to stay together. Ah, young love). It’s a choice not many students are mature enough to make at 17. And one that isn’t made any easier by the artificial ranking system used by US News.
The US News system is, at best, a flawed one, designed to reward schools for “being good,” but not necessarily serving their students well. Gladwell asserts that the criteria used to rank these schools aren’t the same criteria used to actually predict student performance. The amount of professors who publish during the previous academic year? Gladwell points out that professors who publish during the year tend to be WORSE teachers than those who don’t (then of course there’s the question of how to measure teacher effectivenes. Neither Gladwell, nor I, wants to open that can of worms). Reputation? Basically schools are being awarded points of how good other schools think they are. And cost barely factors into the equation for US News, but is a large factor for many high school seniors.
Which is not to say that the school I went to (NYU) was not the best fit for me. It was. I loved it. I met my husband because I went to NYU. And yes, I got into “better” (read: higher ranked) schools but chose not to go to them. But NYU was still a very good school. It was still a school with a great reputation that I knew would get me a job after college. I would be lying if I said the US News rankings didn’t play a factor in my decision-making (so did my Fifth Avenue dorm).
Are the US News rankings hurting our students? Not sure. On the one hand, some students use them as a guideline but not a Bible. They use the rankings, and particularly the more specialized rankings that Gladwell doesn’t mention (Best Liberal Arts college etc), to their advantage. But others are chasing the number. Looking to go to the 8th best school in the country, not the 1st best school for them.