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How to Judge a College

Reprinted from USA Today, August 29, 2010

The stream of college rankings turns into a flood this time of year. Magazines and websites say their judgments hold institutions accountable and help consumers make intelligent choices. Noble virtues aside, it's also not a bad business plan.

In the case of one magazine that otherwise can boast of no particular expertise reporting on education, its rankings enterprise might be the only thing keeping it in the public eye. It is aided and abetted by the schools themselves, who tout the rankings when they provide some reed, no matter how thin, to hang on. One college this year announced how one guide had named it the 13th "easiest campus to get around." A strategic plan to make the top 10 is surely in the offing.

Three years ago, I joined a group of college presidents who pledged never to publicize our national rankings because to do so was to give them our imprimatur. If we didn't take the rankings seriously, why give them prominence? We could claim to be operating from a position of strength because we were, after all, the presidents of the top 20 national liberal arts colleges. The irony was not lost on us. We didn't quite say, "Those of us in the top 20 wish to call attention to our ranking by saying you shouldn't pay attention to our ranking," but in this cynical era some thought we were doing just that.

So here at Washington and Lee, we watch rankings with bemusement and self-discipline. What do we say when a prominent website ranks us the sixth "strictest college in the country" the week before I meet with local residents irate about our students' off-campus escapades? A local reporter, noting our presence on this list and the absence of the neighboring military institute and the Mormon-affiliated college down the road, came to the only conclusion: "Go figure."

What do we do when Forbes.com ranks us 37th nationally, and our excellent state flagship university promotes its No. 44 Forbes.com ranking by proclaiming itself the country's "top non-military-academy public university"? Or how about a school announcing that it ranks among the top 3% of the nation's colleges because it is among the top 28% in Forbes.com, and Forbes.com reviewed only 9% of all colleges?They really did "go figure."

As an institution that takes some of its lead from our namesakes by trying to act with some dignity, Washington and Lee cannot trumpet one publication's labeling of us as one of the "hottest colleges of the decade." We thought that was a good thing, but one can never be too sure of the criteria.

Rankings are not evil. Students and families need information. Four years of undergraduate education is not a trivial commitment. But the rankings game is on the verge of parodying itself. Worse, it threatens to drive strategic decisions on campuses in ways that have little to do with what should be important.

The most worrisome feature is that the frenzy feeds the bumper-sticker, attention-deficit syndrome in our society, a trend that higher education should forcefully resist. Not everything that matters can be measured; the most important things in life are the least susceptible to quantification.

Bits of data do not define the best college, no matter how much they are manipulated into the appearance, but only the appearance, of order and symmetry. Complex judgments about quality should be, well, qualitative. And they should be personal, informed by data but backed by intuition and self-awareness.

The false precision of the rankings is appealing, but a delusion. Thoughtful amassing of data is not bad, but it is a terrible substitute for wisdom.

Kenneth P. Ruscio is president of Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va.