August 23, 2005

The college rankings game

I was walking around the campus yesterday and it was wonderful. The day was cool and sunny and the campus was green and inviting, reinforcing my feeling that over the last fifteen years Case has transformed itself from an ugly-building and surface-parking-lot dominated landscape to one of the most attractive urban campuses in the nation. This is especially so this year with the new dorms that have opened up (I went on the tour last week and was really impressed by their spaciousness and tastefulness) and the new playing fields.

But the best thing was to see all the new and returning students wandering around, many with their parents. Summer is a nice time to be here but nothing beats the sense of liveliness and eager anticipation that I associate with the beginning of a new school year. And to top it all, we have the large incoming class (last I heard it was around 1180) and the SAGES program going full throttle. I am eager to get back in the classroom again.

I got back in my office and discovered that the magazine Washington Monthly announced that it has devised a new method for ranking colleges, using a different set of criteria from those used by the better known US News & World Report. As you may know, the latter magazine revealed its latest rankings just a couple of days ago and Case dropped from 35 last year to 37 this year. This is the season for the rankings to come out and Princeton Review releases its rankings today.

Washington Monthly explains that its criteria are based on what they perceived should be the function of universities: "Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth; and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service." The accompanying article explains how these criteria were translated into quantifiable measures for each school.

Since these criteria seemed worthwhile, I decided to check out the rankings. Of course, the first thing I looked for was Case's ranking and was pleasantly surprised that Case ranked at #24. When you compare private universities alone, Case came out at #12 compared with #29 for US News & World Report. Case came ahead of a lot of private universities who regularly rank above us in the other ratings, such as Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, and Rochester.

It seems like it is the "engines of social mobility" and "ethic of service" criteria that caused a lot of shifting of rankings. The former criterion was measured using the number of Pell grants, and this helped the top-tier state universities rise in the rankings since they offer more poor people the chance for education and advancement. The latter criterion was measured by "whether a school devotes a significant part of its federal work study funding to placing students in community service jobs (as the original work study law intended); the percentage of students enrolled in ROTC; and the percentage of graduates currently enrolled in the Peace Corps." As a result, a lot of state universities rose and private universities dropped. Harvard, for example, was #75 on the service criterion.

So what is one to make of this variability in rankings from magazine to magazine? Does this mean that we should not take them seriously? Not quite. The measures used are useful pieces of information. The fundamental problem arises when multifaceted measures, each possibly worthwhile in itself, are combined to produce a single score for ranking purposes.

I’ll explore this question in subsequent postings.


The British newspaper The Independent finally tallies up the official lies told about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in a London tube station, which I have been writing about. Here is the key section:

What police said - and what really happened

The police claim: A man of "Asian appearance", behaving suspiciously, is shot dead by police on a Tube train in Stockwell.
The truth: The dead man, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was Brazilian.

The police claim: His shooting was "directly linked" to the investigation into the London bombings.
The truth: Mr de Menezes was an electrician and had nothing to do with the London bombings.

The police claim: Witnesses described him running into the Tube station, vaulting the barriers.
The truth: He walked into the station and picked up a free newspaper before entering with a travel pass. He made his way to the platform. He started to run only when the train arrived.

The police claim: Witnesses said he was wearing an "unseasonable" heavy coat, and Scotland Yard said his clothing had "added to suspicions".
The truth: Photographs of the body show Mr de Menezes wearing a blue denim jacket.

The police claim: "As I understand the situation the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions" - Sir Ian Blair.
The truth: There was no police challenge.

The police claim: Mr de Menezes ran on to the Tube train, tripped and was shot five times by police as he lay on the floor.
The truth: CCTV footage is said to show Mr de Menezes pausing, looking left and right, and sitting on a seat facing the platform. A police witness says Mr de Menezes stood up when the police arrived. The policeman then pinned his arms to his sides and pushed him back in the seat. Mr de Menezes was then shot 10 times - three of the bullets missed.


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I'd rather have my university be known as the 37th best school in the nation than the #1 Party School. *sigh* It's occasionally hard to get taken seriously when you say you go to UW-Madison.

Posted by Amanda Kepley on August 23, 2005 11:11 AM

Agreed. Now how do we change Case's rank of #19 for Least Happy Students?

My alma mater (Colby) came in 7th for Best Food. Tis a great thing for prospective students but not so exciting when looking for alumna bragging points.

Posted by cool on August 23, 2005 11:53 AM

The "happy" issue at Case has been around for a long time but (anecdotally) I have seen a marked improvement in the past few years. I expect to see big changes with the changes in physical layout and education programs.

It is going to be an interesting next few years...!

Posted by Mano Singham on August 23, 2005 12:07 PM

I may be over-generalising from my own experience here, but I think there are some more basic things that play into the unhappiness of students. I found myself having to devote far too much time and energy to chasing bureaucracy around because of one mistake after another, to the point that I have often felt that the university was impeding my learning rather than enabling it. If this experience is typical and continues to be so, it's going to do a lot to mask any benefits from improvements to the campus environment or education programme.

Posted by eldan on August 23, 2005 12:38 PM

The Menezes story gets worse and worse. Lining up the lies with the facts is a good way to communicate it, Mano, thanks. Democracy Now this morning showed his cousin speaking in England, where the family has come to open an investigation into this, well, crime, major crime. I hope they have a better outcome than the family of Amadou Diallo in New York.

Posted by catherine on August 23, 2005 01:22 PM

Prof. Singham, while I enjoyed hearing about how US institutions are doing relative to each other, I'm about to leave for grad school in Germany so I started to wonder, according to the criteria you mentioned in this post, how good are German schools? There's no simple answer, so I had to write a lot. Over on my own blog, I wrote a series of four posts on the topic, beginning here. It's not finished yet, but anyone interested is welcome to read/comment.

Posted by Audrey Nemeth on August 24, 2005 05:28 PM

From what I've seen of the University more recently, I think that it may have been better while I was there than it has become since I left. While the new dorms may be nice, I think that SAGES being mandatory is seriously flawed, the tuition has grown ridiculously, Univeristy spending has become reckless ($40M deficit, anyone?), and the intellectual atmosphere isn't what it used to be...
I have a friend who went to Washington University in St. Louis instead of CWRU because of some of these things - and he felt that CWRU was just following trends. The problem is that instead of focusing on true excellence, the University is trying to focus on making a name for itself. Case Western Reserve University used to be more of a niche school that provided an outstanding education at a reasonable price, especially with the generous scholarships. Now, it is making itself look pretty - but how much of the substance has degraded as a result? From some of what I hear from different contacts on campus, plenty has degraded...
I don't have time to get into more detail now - I have a Qualifying Exam next week - but if requested, I will attempt to do so after that...

Posted by William Sherwin on August 26, 2005 12:45 AM

In reply to William Sherwin-

You must remember, though, that while Case HAS been spending more, and the scholarships, both amounts and number, are reducing... they're accepting MORE students. Case is still the best school in Ohio, according to quite a few resources, and it's definately the best deal with the pure amount of diffrent types of majors in both the Arts, and the Science colleges. You can do pretty much anything you want here, and all you'll get is excellent support from teachers who are highly qualified.

In response to Professor Singham-

You are definitely one of the most imformative and intresting professors I've met yet. ^_^ You led my mini-SAGES thing back during one of the 'Experience Case' sessions, and I had a blast. You were also the only truely interesting speaker at the assembly for the required reading book... I'm somewhat depressed I won't have you as a teacher since I'm not/don't have to take physics! I'm too dumb for that type of science anyways, I'll just take my nutrition and Astrology happily >.>


Posted by Mike Robinson on August 29, 2005 10:15 AM

In response to William, if there was simply a deficit without any changes, that would be a bad sign. But this deficit is part of a planned four year program, to make big investments in both physical appearance and educational programs and it has already had an effect as we can see with huge increase in interest in coming to Case. We still have to deliver the goods but I can already sense excitement among students and faculty.

We should look on the deficit like we do when we take out a mortgage to but a house. We immediately go into debt but it is a planned debt.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 29, 2005 10:37 AM


I am glad that you liked the mini-SAGES session. If it fits your schedule, you can enroll in my SAGES seminar during your second year fall semester.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 29, 2005 10:42 AM

Your 'Post Script' is very telling and recounts a very disagreeable part of UK police history - do we blame the police or the terrorists for Jean Charles de Menezes' death?
Whatever the rights or wrongs - RIP Jean Charles de Menezes.

Posted by Roger on May 5, 2007 09:22 AM its very useful for student ( like me). I hope this blog always update. thanks you

Posted by pacitan on September 8, 2007 10:58 AM

Great article.. Very Informative.
The College Guru

Posted by Basil The College Guru on November 15, 2007 11:33 PM

Clearly we need a more open look at all of this.

Posted by CCTV Cameras on November 17, 2008 09:20 AM

"Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth" - unfortunately universities are just becoming cash machines, churning out "soft degree" fooder for the corporate world. If only we could turn the clock back 50 years

Posted by JDowns on February 12, 2011 03:34 AM

I think a school should be ranked by what they're students accomplish after they've graduated. I'm more interested in job placement percentage than their social mobility!

A dear friend of mine recently graduated from a top notch school, and right now she has a job that has nothing to do with her degree. I'm sure she will get a job more relevant, but my point is I'd rather go to school that has a record of high job placement post grad.

Posted by Newman on February 23, 2011 02:26 PM