Aug 16, 2010

Forbes Tries Again to Rank Colleges


For the third year running, Forbes Magazine recently trotted out its sorry attempt to upstage the soon-to-be-released US News and World Report annual ranking of colleges. And number three is no better, useful, or accurate than numbers one or two.

“…the Forbes list comes off more as a parody than any real competition for the U.S. News & World Report ‘Best Colleges’ edition, which has its own well-publicized problems with credible outcomes data,” commented Trinity Washington University president Patricia McGuire, for Inside Higher Ed. “Once again, greed trumps truth while masquerading as a consumer service.”

And still it’s embarrassing to see how many prestigious publications, including the Washington Post, rise to the bait and run the list. Even more embarrassing are the press releases from colleges basking in the glory of so much as a mention. Without naming names, one local college boasted of landing somewhere considerably north of 200 in the ranking of 610 institutions.

Happily, most of the Forbes top ten colleges ignored the honor and didn’t dignify the list with as much as a web note. Only Claremont-McKenna and West Point, which dropped from number one in 2009 to number 4 this year, issued releases earnestly bragging of their rankings as top ten institutions.

But did they look at the methodology? Even with over eleven web pages of self-justifying blather, Forbes can’t get beyond the fact that the most of the data used to generate their list has no real validity. RateMyProfessors.com? Payscale.com? Who’s Who in America? And what sense does it make to lump major research institutions with liberal arts colleges in the same ranking?

For the record, RateMyProfessors.com is a compilation of opinions shown to be largely from very happy students OR very very unhappy students—not much in between. And, if anyone would bother to look, RateMyProfessors is becoming obsolete as a rating tool as colleges create and post their own private rating websites (see Stanford's site for a good example).

Equally ridiculous as a serious evaluation tool, Payscale.com invites readers to self-report salaries. Not only is there no possible way to judge the accuracy of this information, but it also usually represents a very small and select group of recent graduates.

And Who’s Who is a vanity listing geared toward selling books to anyone whose name mysteriously finds its way into those volumes.

So for what it’s worth, DC area institutions didn’t fare too well on the Forbes rankings. Only the U.S. Naval Academy and Washington & Lee made it within the top 40 “best” colleges in America. The Naval Academy was also named as one of the top 40 “best buys,” in a list somewhat biased toward schools charging no tuition.

“Evaluating the best college for any given student is a process that starts with a clear understanding of the student’s own intellectual talents, academic interests and social needs,” concludes President McGuire. “No list rank-ordered by someone else’s idea of ‘best’ can substitute for the student’s own judgment, after in-person research, of what will really be the best place to learn, live and grow successfully.”

Words to live by.


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