Reed and the Rankings Racket

By Chris Lydgate '90 | September 22, 2015

Fall has arrived, and all that comes with it—shorter days, longer nights, pumpkin-spice product placement, and of course, the autumnal deluge of college rankings.

As I’ve written before, the business of ranking colleges has long been fraught with arbitrary definitions, incomplete data, misleading comparisons, and outright manipulation. Some 91% of college admission directors suspect that cheating is rampant. And only 2% of them think rankings are “very effective” at helping prospective students find a good fit.

Nonetheless, collegebound high-school seniors are hungry for something, anything, to guide them on their momentous decision. And for millions of readers, articles on rankings remain irresistible clickbait. Thus the ranking systems and rating schemes keep sprouting like dandelions—this year even the federal government has gotten into the act with a College Scorecard website.

There’s been some good news for Reed this year. The Princeton Review gave us top marks for great professors and positive classroom experience; Washington Monthly ranked Reed #6, citing the number of grads who volunteer for the Peace Corps and go on to get PhDs. Quartz ranked Reed #12 among colleges responsible for the greatest advances in science. But there’s also been bad news. U.S. News, the megalomaniac mastodon of rankings schemes, put Reed at #93 among liberal arts colleges nationwide and the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard project reckons that the average salary of grads 10 years after they enter Reed is $36,200.

The low grade from U.S. News is no surprise. President Steve Koblik [1992–2001] pulled out of the organization's survey in 1995 and Reed has been penalized for it ever since.

However, I was disappointed by the College Scorecard and its emphasis on income as an indicator of success. For starters, there are problems with the way the feds came up with the figures. The figure applies only to Reedies who obtained federal financial aid, and is calculated 10 years after their freshman year, regardless of whether they graduate from Reed or transfer to another institution. In addition, many Reedies head to grad school, where they scrape by on stipends and enjoy roughly the same earning power as baristas--at least until they finish their advanced degrees.

But the value of education should never be measured in dollars and cents alone. Doing so discounts the work of anyone who serves in the Peace Corps, volunteers for Teach America, starts a business, writes a novel, records an album, or takes any job because they care about something besides the bottom line.

Fine, you say, but can abstractions like wellbeing, commitment, and passion be objectively measured? The answer is yes. The Gallup-Purdue Index is an ambitious project that has so far surveyed more than 60,000 college graduates to identify the elements of college that help graduates thrive in all areas of their lives. Summarizing the results in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote, “What college gives you hinges almost entirely on what you give it.”

It seems unlikely that a college as distinctive as Reed will ever score high in a one-size-fits-all system such as U.S. News or the College Scorecard. That's OK. Fortunately, Reed is attracting record numbers of applicants who have the good sense to look at the numbers, then to look into them, and finally to see what lies behind them.

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