Wednesday, August 31, 2005

College Rankings

It's a fascinating phenomenon, the ranking of colleges. U.S. News & World Report has turned this phenomenon into a cash cow by publishing annually a ranking of the top American undergraduate institutions. What a distinctly American thing to do. We can't just have a general assessment of where things are, like in other countries. For example, Cambridge has no inherent "ranking score" attached to it, though everyone knows that it's an elite institution. No, it's the frothy Americans with their endless competitive games who must tell one another whose pedigree is best. We who rank cars, microwaves, baseball teams, and the like must of course score those institutions that forever carry our affection, command our dollars, and augment our resumes.

But how much do these rankings really matter, you ask? Some are going to scoff about them and say that many don't pay them any mind. That may be true for some, but for many, myself included, rankings are quite important. When I applied to schools, one of the first places I looked was U.S. News. Now, that's not all bad, necessarily. One need not be dominated by rankings, and they can be a useful tool to determine school's strength, if an inexact one. But one can also be motivated to pore over them by sinful pride. I'm sure that was a good part of my interest, regrettably. And yet I must say that even now I still check.

The very idea that you can rank an institution--such a grand entity, in some ways difficult to get one's arms around everything--is just great. As said above, it's amusingly American. "What's the best city, Bob?" "One sec, Ron...ummmm...Chicago!" "Gee, thanks, Bob!" And there it is. Chicago is the best city. Well, we can all see the amusing nature of such a ranking, and yet we are also drawn to such things. That's all on this one--I've got to go purchase the top-ranked microwave--it's unanimous.


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