Number of lists ranking colleges proliferate — and some don’t make sense


Georgetown University has one of the “10 most hipster campuses” according to one ranking. (Simon Brubaker/THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 6, 2012

Georgetown University is rated one of the “10 most hipster campuses.” Catholic University is home to not one, but two of the “15 best dorms in the country.” And Johns Hopkins University made a list of 25 well-regarded schools deemed “least rigorous.”

Wait, really? One of the region’s most selective universities — a world-renowned research institution that warns teaching assistants about the intense competitiveness of its undergraduates and has four Nobel laureates on its faculty — is accused of not being rigorous?

“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?).

List makers benefit

Last year, the Web site Campus Splash released two rounds of dorm-related rankings generated solely from anonymous reviews. The site was created by a George Washington University student and a recent GW graduate, who did not respond to e-mailed questions.

Campus Splash’s first ranking of top dorms, released in March, was picked up by Huffington Post, Time, USA Today and numerous blogs. Georgia State University issued a news release announcing one of its dorms had been “ranked best overall dorm in the country.” Its September rendition of “The 15 Best Dorms in the Country” featured five halls in or near the District, including two at Catholic.

The ranking of “The 10 Most Hipster Campuses” by the Web site College Magazine took a different approach, mashing together statistics such as location, proximity to “hipster” shops, vegan dining options and how the student radio station fared in another ranking. Georgetown was No. 10, even though many say its collective style is more J. Crew than thrift store. The list quickly went viral.

“It was huge for us,” said Amanda Nachman, the magazine’s founder and publisher. “It was more hype than we’ve ever gotten.”

Nachman, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 2007, added: “It’s fun for a student to see their school on a ranking.”

That’s true, unless it’s an unsavory ranking, such as least rigorous or “druggiest.”

At the core of nearly two dozen such rankings compiled by the Daily Beast and Newsweek are letter grades assigned to schools by anonymous users of a site called CollegeProwler.com.

College Prowler founder Luke Skurman said he assumes that most of those taking a survey are students or recent graduates, and that his data is “totally accurate.”

“It’s more of an honor system, in all honesty,” Skurman said. “I’m sure there are always people trying to game the system.”

Daily Beast and Newsweek spokesman Andrew Kirk said in an e-mail that College Prowler provides “the best data available offering first-hand perspective from students.”

Getting unranked is difficult

Many schools learn of their latest ranking from a reporter or a Google alert. At that point, it’s difficult to get unranked.

In December, the Daily Beast and Newsweek put Denison College in Ohio near the top of its “druggiest” list. The formula that produced the list used College Prowler “drug-safety grades,” campus arrest data, enrollment and the estimated rate of illicit drug use for all 18- to 25-year-olds in the state.

Denison President Dale Knobel was appalled. His campus had fewer than a dozen drug-related arrests in 2010. Knobel e-mailed his trustees to explain that some rankings are compiled by “the electronic equivalents of supermarket checkout line tabloids.”

In the e-mail, which Knobel shared with The Post, he wrote: “Should we all be outraged? Yes. Is there anything we can do about it? Sadly, no.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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