Lies, damned lies and university rankings.
Some observations on the latest QS World University Rankings, now in their seventh year:
1. You can be sure of two things, that such rankings are popular with news-media editors and readers, and that they are severely limited in usefulness. Most rankings of things are. Who was the better lyricist, Harold Arlen, Dorothy Fields or Johnny Mercer? Does the Eiffel Tower trump the Taj Mahal? Does the Night Watch outrank Michelangelo's David?
University rankings don't examine the illuminating, charismatic impact of selected faculty and the deadwood that overpopulates faculty lounges at some of even the best schools and departments. Neither do they assess value for money. How how do you even measure average post-higher education career and life fulfillment, never mind calculating fulfillment-for-money ratio?
Only the tangible is measured. Number of books in the library is a favorite. But what kind of books and other media, which could include all first editions of Ian Fleming's oeuvre, or the oldest known copy of Diderot's Encyclopedia, or everything of relevance that has been published on astrophysics, shorn of duplicative and superficial works assembled by librarians motivated by usefulness of learning materials and not sheer volume. The number of academic papers by faculty is a must in calculating ratings. But here again, is that a consequence of "publish or perish" or are the accumulated works indicative of truly leading-edge scholars? George W. Bush is the first MBA president (Harvard, no less) and also among the least competent U.S. chief executives. The tipping point on what school to attend occasionally is the provision of co-ed dorms.
2. Money only roughly co-relates with the claimed standing of the 300 schools ranked here. The average undergrad tuition of the 13 U.S. schools in the top 20 worldwide, according to QS, is $36,769. (I've chosen the low end of the range, which for 8th-ranked University of Chicago is $42,000 to $44,000.) The average score of those schools, by QS's methodology, is 94.2.
You have to ask yourself if it's worth the money to pay $40,000 a year to attend 19th-ranked Duke University in Durham, N.C., with its score of 89.3, or just $4,000 to attend the 17th-ranked McGill University, with its score of 89.6. Or to attend one of the top U.S. schools when the five highest-ranked British schools, with average tuition of $11,600, boast an average score of 96.0 to the American schools' 94.2.
Public or private? Private Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh charges a nosebleed $40,000 a year in undergrad tuition, and ranks 43th among the world's best schools, with a score of 78.5. The public University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, charges just $10,000 in tuition but ranks 14th with a score of 91.3. (AP, Getty Images)
You have to ask yourself whether the cachet of a private school like 43rd-ranked Carnegie Mellon is better value at $42,000 a year (score: 78.5) than the public, 14th-ranked University of Michigan (score: 91.3) at $10,000 a year. If you're a Swiss national, you can attend the 18th-ranked Swiss Federal Institute of Technology for just $1,000 a year. (Score: 89.5)
3. The "anglosphere" rules in the top ranks of the world's best schools, at least by the lights of this survey. Eighteen of the top 20 schools are American or British, leaving one each in Canada (McGill) and Switzerland. On the face of it, I refuse to believe not one German, French, or Japanese school belongs in the top 20. Conversely the relative anonymity of Johns Hopkins University and Caltech, the latter once having commanded much attention for the work of its faculty and graduates but long ago overshadowed by Stanford and MIT, suggests their presence in the top 20 is a function of legacy rather than current quality.
4. As in medicine, one sees here America's staggering divide between elite and everyday education. Defenders of the status quo in U.S. education and healthcare routinely cite that country's top schools and teaching, treatment and research hospitals as the best in the world. Fair enough. Except that you have to break the bank to attend or be attended at them. And the spread in scores between the costly U.S. schools and the likes of 23-ranked University of Toronto (tuition, $10,000; score: 86.2) doesn't justify, to me at least, the huge gap in tuition. And the high ranking of America's best schools and health-care facilties is made a mockery of by the low world ranking of the American adult workforce in math (35), literacy (18) and science (29) and the nation's comparatively poor health outcomes. A quick look at the latest QS ranking powerfully suggests the U.S. is already "out-educating" other nations, as Barack Obama has set as a goal, when that's plainly, and tragically, not the case.
William Moloney, former Colorado Education Commissioner, got to the nub of this crisis in a January speech:
Left unchecked on its current trajectory American education will be cited by future historians as a central cause in the decline of American Civilization...The Centennial Brief reported U.S. international ranking as 18th in Reading, 29th in Science, and 35th in Math. Updated results released just last month and given extraordinary coverage across the country confirmed this grim assessment. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the results a 'massive wake-up call' and further stated that ''America cannot tolerate falling ever further behind our international competitors'. [Yet] the many studies of comparative international education spending all reach the same conclusion: The U.S.A. is at or near the top in spending.