Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
According to folklore (and the legendary author Neil Gaiman), the con man and riverboat gambler Canada Bill Jones was playing cards in Cairo, Illinois, one day, when a buddy came up to him and pulled him aside to say, “Don’t you know this game is crooked?” Canada Bill replied, “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.”
That’s how I felt when news broke that Columbia University acknowledged it had been submitting inaccurate data to US News and World Report for their annual college rankings. This revelation was brought to light by a math professor at the university, who found discrepancies between the data Columbia submitted for the ranking and reality. Since he made these discrepancies public, Columbia’s ranking has dropped from #2 to #18.
Everyone in higher education knows that these rankings don’t really measure true quality, that cheating is rampant among many different schools, and that even schools that report accurate data still try to game the ranking system.
In fact, both journalism and scholarship on deceptive reporting to rise in the U.S. News rankings, which debuted in 1983, dates back to at least the 90s. The stakes are high for schools, with some scholarship noting a correlation between rising in the ranks and selectivity, as well as a rise in tuition. (US News has defended its rankings as a way to “make sure that students make the best decision for themselves.”)
But what is a high school student or parent to do? The con men run the game, but it’s the only game in town.
Students may feel trapped (as well as the many honest and well-intentioned people in higher education who have no interest in being a part of this game). The truth is: You don’t have to play. When U.S. News started publishing, it was relatively more difficult to get information about colleges across the country. Today, we live in an information overload, but we can use that to our advantage and do our own investigating – either by savvy web searches or just by emailing schools we’re interested in – to get information on the factors that really matter to us.
I firmly believe small classes are better than large classes across all disciplines. I also know from working for decades at both public and private colleges and universities that full-time faculty are more able to commit resources to educating students over the long term than adjunct faculty or graduate students, no matter how brilliant.
I was a pretty good teacher when I was on temp jobs at elite private schools, but I did my best teaching when I was a full-timer at a not-so-elite school (that ranks very well on “value” and “social mobility”). It wasn’t that I was a more experienced teacher, but that I was able to invest in students’ whole education, rather than just a single brief contact before I went on to my next gig.
What’s more, although the Columbia scandal involved the university releasing false information about class size and faculty status, you don’t have to rely on rankings to figure it out. Go to their course schedules. Look up classes you’re interested in. See how big they are – many universities, including Columbia, give class enrollment sizes in their online directory of classes. See if they’ve been offered regularly over the last few years. See if they are regularly taught by people who also appear on the full-time Faculty tab on the departmental webpage. All of this information is at your fingertips.
You may care more about other categories than class size and percentage of full-time faculty – you probably also care about your happiness at an institution and whether it feels like the right “fit.” We learn better, we live better, when we’re happy. It’s ok to choose colleges based on these factors.
Once you find a tier and type of school that fits you (size, region, programs, cost, selectivity, etc.), it almost doesn’t matter which one you choose, so looking for one where you’ll be happy and comfortable is fine. And, of course, that’s highly individualized and subjective, not reducible to the rankings. No two people will have the same experience at Princeton (#1), University of Virginia (#25), or my employer the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (#62). It’s vastly more important to find a place where you thrive than to chase prestige up the listicle ranks.
For example, I knew I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college. I applied early to Wesleyan University, not just because it’s an amazing school (it is!), but because I was shy and they promised me a single. I really didn’t want a roommate.
While touring schools, however, I visited Macalester College and I met a bunch of folks in a bluegrass band who invited me to jam late into the night. Their bass player was graduating and I had learned to play bluegrass bass as a kid growing up in Nashville, so they suggested I might be able to play with them the next year. For that reason alone, I ranked Macalester my second choice over its neighbor Carleton College or the dozen or so other small liberal arts colleges I was considering.
I got into Wesleyan, went there, and never regretted it. Years later I taught at Macalester and confirmed that I likely would have thrived in that community too. Thirty years in higher education later, I defend my selection criteria as just as valid as any other.
While schools do exist in rough tiers of selectivity, size, excellence, prestige and so forth, the idea of precise rankings is balderdash. This means that for prospective students, there’s just no reason to chase the top 5 over the top 20, or the top 20 over the top 40, and so forth.
Nonetheless, elite universities will keep fighting for incremental changes in their rank, learning to tweak how they appear quantitatively rather than actually concerning themselves with quality. It will continue to be a crooked game. But you can get up and walk away from the table, play a different game, and find the information you need to make the best decision for you.