Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 8, against “Rankings”

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon): this week we’re discussing chapter 8, “Rankings”.

Here DeMillo focuses on the ways different agencies create college rankings, and what they reveal about academic hierarchies.  The chapter starts with the US News and World Report document, of course (“education is nearly absent”) and the London Times’ tables, then reaches back to Edwin Slosson‘s Great American Universities (1910), which may be the first ranking report, although it “ranked only fourteen universities” (Kindle location 3473).

Slosson, Great American Universities (1910)

Also important in this section was the important story of the National Research Council (NRC)’s graduate school ranking research, which DeMillo presents as initially a powerful document, but tumbling down into an epic failure, at least in the most recent version (2010ff) (3519ff).  Not everyone shares that damning view.

Ultimately DeMillo finds higher education rankings to be at best too limited to be useful.  He generates a useful list of what one might look for in a campus, and finds two topics “simply not addressed by published rankings”:

Besides the visible success stories, what happens to most graduates once they get their degrees?

What, exactly, do students learn?

Moreover, returning to last week’s chapter, these two questions “cannot be answered by seeing who is above you in the pyramid.” (3686)  In fact, “the choice of major is more predictive of earnings potential than the choice of institution.” (3709)  Worse yet, “[t]he more expensive the school, the better the earnings.” (3719)  An observation that resonates with Robert Putnam, yes?

ACTA, What Will They Learn?The only ranking scheme to emerge relatively unscathed is the one from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), What Will They Learn? (TM). DeMillo describes this as a measurement of required general education courses, based on a set of preferred courses and disciplines, “subjects like composition, literature, foreign languages, economics, science, and mathematics.” He numbers seven of these courses, but I’m not sure if the previous list is correct, nor what happened to the social sciences (3730).  The most recent WWTL? (2014) grades a bit more than 1000 campuses, and harshly:

A 23 (2.1%)

389 (35.4%)

C 329 (30.0%)

D 259 (23.6%)

F 98 (8.9%)

DeMillo plays the ACTA study against the others rankings, noting “[n]ot a single school from the [US News] top twenty received an A in the 2012 ACTA study…. No Ivy League schools received an A… Of the colleges charging $40,000 or more for tuition,nearly 60 percent received Ds and Fs” (3751).

What is common to all these schools is that their performance is not defined by their relative position in an arbitrarily defined rankings pyramid.  None of them should care who is above them. (3767)

Ultimately, for this book, “[w]hatever the hierarchy, and no matter how quantitative and precise it seems, rank is meaningless… institutional envy is no basis for a sound academic strategy” (3793).

DeMillo returns to his theme of access versus the elite, praising Slosson: “[economic] Class held little sway for Slosson.  The modern trappings of the Elite did not enter into his calculations.” (3466)

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I love Slossons’ practice of assessing universities by actually taking classes in them.
  • I honestly haven’t examined the ACTA study to see how useful it really is.

Overall, a fierce chapter, continuing DeMillo’s war against prestige and hierarchy.

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting December 28th, is chapter 9: Institutional Envy.

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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One Response to Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 8, against “Rankings”

  1. Pingback: Warpping up Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education | Bryan Alexander

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