Everybody in academia hates the US NEWS ratings. Now they have something new to hate.

Lee Sigelman Aug 14 '09

The nation’s best college is the U.S. Military Academy.

Rounding out the top ten, in order, are Princeton, Caltech, Williams, Harvard, Wellesley, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Amherst, Yale, and Stanford.

That’s according to the latest ratings compiled by Forbes magazine.

It’s reassuring to see some tried-and-true name brands (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford) at the top of the list, and it’s refreshing to me (as a product and fan of the small liberal arts college) to see some of those (Williams, Wellesley, Amherst) sprinkled among the leaders, too.

But two military schools in the top ten, with one at the very top? (And, because I know you’re wondering, the U.S. Naval Academy at number 30?) What’s up with that?

And Centre College at #14? It’s a nice school, and some of my very best friends went there. But I think even they would have to wonder at that rating.

And at lots of others, too. Take a gander at the following partial listing, which I’ve excerpted from the full list of 600:

(For a full listing of Forbes’s ratings of 600 schools and related information, you can click here.) Otherwise, just keep reading.

32 Wabash
42 Depauw
54 Hampden-Sydney
56 St. Mary’s of California
57 Principia
58 George Fox
59 Emory
64 University of Virginia
66 Doane
67 Salem
68 North Carolina, Chapel Hill
72 Brown
73 UC Berkeley
75 Juniata
76 Hillsdale
77 Vanderbilt
79 VMI
83 Pennsylvania
84 Berea
85 Transylvania
87 Nebraska Wesleyan
88 Oberlin
90 Centenary
97 Huntington
98 Dartmouth
104 Duke
106 Georgetown
108 College of Idaho
109 Oklahoma Baptist
110 Carson-Newman
147 Converse
148 LaGrange
149 UCSD
174 Texas, Austin
200 Michigan
206 La Verne
207 Cornell
230 St. Mary’s of Minnesota
231 UC Davis
241 Warren Wilson
242 UC Santa Cruz
255 Hamline
256 Virginia Tech
270 Rochester
279 Bob Jones
281 Southern California
284 Cedarville
285 Pittsburgh
323 Stony Brook
324 Penn State
331 Miami of Ohio
355 NYU
361 Ohio State
364 Grove City
387 Maryland
415 Wisconsin
429 George Washington
430 Iowa
437 Rutgers
543 Minnesota

A few surprises there, eh? I’ll bet you didn’t know that Principia and George Fox are better schools than Emory and UVa, or that no-names like North Carolina, Brown, and Berkeley are right up there alongside such powerhouses as Doane, Salem, Juniata, and Hillsdale. Dartmouth, Duke, and Georgetown, all clustered around #100, can take solace by being in the company of Cententary, Huntington, College of Idaho, and Oklahoma Baptist. UCSD, Texas, and Michigan? No worries — they’ve got Converse, Lagrange, and La Verne to keep ’em warm. Virginia Tech at #256, Southern Cal at 281, and Rochester at #270 may feel underplaced, but, hey, they’re doing as well as Bob Jones (#279) and Cedarville (#284). And the Big Ten? Those schools may be hot stuff on the gridiron, but as schools they (Penn State at #324, Wisconsin at #415, Iowa at #430, and Minnesota at #543) are hard-pressed to compete with Grove City College (#364). And a couple of spendy Eastern schools — NYU (#355) and GW (#429 — ouch) — are obviously less desirable than, well, almost anywhere else.

How can this be, you ask?

The answer, of course, lies in the rating system: Here are the criteria and weights that were employed in the Forbes rankings:

25%: Student satisfaction with instruction, as gleaned from their RateMyProfessor scores.

25%. Post-graduate employment success, composed of 12.5% for enrollment-adjusted entries in Who’s Who in America and 12.5% for salary data for post-graduate college graduates.

16.67%. Likelihood of graduating within four years.

20%. Estimated average four-year student loan debt.

8.33% Student success in winning national and international competititve academic and research awards.

5%. Faculty success in winning national and international competitive academic and research awards.

A few comments about these standards:

Numerous concerns have arisen about the validity of RateMyProfessor ratings.

Using Who’s Who entries is, not to put too fine a point on it, silly. Just yesterday I tossed away yet another invitation from Who’s Who to buy my way into their book; had I realized that I was depressing GW’s rating by that ill-informed action, I surely would have depleted the Sigelman Family Fortune for the sake of the old school. More generally, Who’s Who entries aren’t for recent college graduate graduates, so how can they be used as an indicator of the current quality of a school? (As for graduates’ salaries, I’ll hold my fire, because I’m not sure what’s being measured — the salaries of recent graduates or the salaries of all graduates. In either instance, I’m not sure why post-graduate salaries are a good measure of the quality of a school.)

The likelihood of graduating within four years. What about schools that place a heavy emphasis on study abroad programs?

Average student loan debt? Well, that tells us why USMA, USAFA, and USNA do so well, doesn’t it? They’re free. Lots of the other highly rated schools get a big break on this standard because they cost so little to attend — which isn’t really a measure of the quality of the education one receives there, is it? (Indeed, one might even make the opposite argument — that the very willingness to incur major debt in order to attend a school is evidence of the quality of the education that the school provides.)

Student success in winning awards? That’s just fine. So why is it only 8.33?

Faculty success in winning awards? That’s fine, too. But just 5%?

Rating schools seems to be a good way to sell magazines. Certainly it’s done wonders for US News. Here’s hoping that no one takes the Forbes ratings seriously, though it seems inevitable that they’ll get lots of publicity, especially from the PR and admissions folks at the schools whose rankings probably prompted you to raise your eyebrows and ask “How in the world did they get up so high?”