“The reaction around here was a collective scratch of the head and a unanimous ‘Huh?’ ” Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea said of the September ranking published by the Daily Beast and Newsweek of “schools that will get you a top-notch degree for the least amount of work.”
The honor was decided using anonymous online surveys about the school’s workload and professors, student-to-faculty ratios, average SAT scores and retention rates. A spokesman for the Daily Beast and Newsweek said the methodology is transparent. Higher education wonks call it laughable.
Colleges have long been rated on all sorts of things, but in the past few years the number of lists has exploded. Many are compiled by start-up Web sites, media outlets or marketing companies using creative mash-ups of statistics, pseudo-statistics and online reviews submitted by anyone with an e-mail address. It seems anyone, anywhere can rank anything using any information — and student newspapers will write about how their schools fared while national media outlets will post news blog entries on it.
If a ranking sparks outrage among students and alumni, that just means more social media buzz and Web traffic. So schools that have been unfairly slammed usually keep quiet and don’t fight back. That was the Johns Hopkins approach.
“The more you react, the more attention you call to the issue,” said Rae Goldsmith, a vice president at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents university media relations officers.
But universities also crave buzz. Many are quick to promote wholly unscientific ratings that show them in a positive light.
“If schools get on a glorious list, those schools will trumpet out those accolades,” said Robert Franek, a publisher at the Princeton Review, a frequent college ranker that has no ties to the university. “Some schools will stamp it right onto their marketing materials.”
One of the best-known lists is the U.S. News and World Report ranking of top schools, which has a a complex methodology that takes 2,250 words to explain. Many university presidents slam U.S. News for measuring the wrong things — while quietly taking steps to help their schools climb higher.
But many rankings have nothing to do with academics. There are lists of friendliest students and hairiest students (Rutgers men are allegedly in dire need of razors). Biggest party schools and party dorms. Most significant architecture and schools most like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts (hands down, the University of Chicago). There’s even a ranking of the most unranked schools (ever heard of Madonna University in Michigan?).