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A College Course in Cynicism

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

You might think that the last group to embrace censorship would be college presidents. After all, they're interested in expanding knowledge, right? Well, no. The incipient revolt against the college rankings by U.S. News & World Report says otherwise.

At last count, presidents of 46 liberal arts colleges have said they will refuse to participate in part of the U.S. News annual survey. The list includes such well-known schools as Barnard and Kenyon. The presidents say the rankings are "misleading" and "do not serve well the interests of prospective students."

Superficially, this seems a sensible blow against the increasingly frenzied, stress-ridden college admissions process. It isn't.

For starters, remember that the hyper-competition applies mainly to the most selective schools. On average, colleges and universities accept about 70 percent of their applicants, says David Hawkins of the National Association of College Admission Counseling. Roughly two-thirds of college freshmen are at their first-choice schools, reports the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

Moreover, the crush at prestigious schools isn't the result of U.S. News rankings. America is a hugely competitive, status-conscious society. Admission to an elite school is a trophy. The number of qualified students has increased far faster than the number of openings. Eliminate rankings, and none of this will change.

Any effects the rankings have on colleges' behavior (for instance: trying to increase the number of applicants to become even more "selective") are trivial by comparison. Over the years, I've done much reporting on college admissions. As a jittery parent, I've also watched two children go through the process. (Note: They ignored my advice.) From all this, I have reached three conclusions.

First, how well people do in life depends mainly on their talents and temperaments, not their college pedigree. This is not just my view; it's the conclusion of much academic research. A dummy who goes to Amherst won't become a genius; a genius who goes to Podunk remains a genius. Good opportunities exist at most schools.

Second, the cutthroat competition to get into elite schools is as much among parents as students. Parents want bragging rights: "Howard and Mary got into Harvard. Look at the great job we did raising them."

Third, the U.S. News rankings actually relieve the stress slightly by enlarging the pool of "elite" schools. Everyone knows that Williams (rank: 1) and Swarthmore (3) are top liberal arts colleges. But the first 10 also include Carleton College (6) in Minnesota, Pomona College (7) in California and Davidson College (10) in North Carolina. The use of semi-objective standards dilutes raw snobbery. (The same leveling applies to U.S. News's separate ranking of national universities.)

It's hard to see how students and parents would benefit if the rankings vanished. (Full disclosure: Brian Kelly, U.S. News's editor, is a friend; I write for a competitor, Newsweek.) No one claims the ratings are perfect. Differences of 10 or even 20 places probably don't mean much. Still, the ranking tables also expose users to masses of objective, comparative information: SAT scores; acceptance rates; graduation rates; student-faculty ratios.

The people who would really benefit from an end to the ratings are college presidents and deans. They get pestered by alumni, donors, parents: Why isn't our school higher? If you're 87th and a traditional rival is 56th, it's embarrassing.

Unsurprisingly, many complaining schools don't rank high. Some seem further down the list of colleges than their old-line reputations imply. Barnard is at 26; Kenyon at 32. Others are lower: Dickinson, 41; Sarah Lawrence, 45; Earlham, 65.

It's not that colleges don't compete ferociously for students or, when it suits their purposes, tout rankings in their marketing. Kenyon's Web site brags that it's one of Newsweek's 25 designated "New Ivies." Barnard notes a survey by Time and the Princeton Review that "40 percent of the 10 nicest dorms in the country" are at women's colleges.

What's so shameful about this campaign against the rankings is its anti-intellectualism. Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence that you dislike or dispute is to supplement or discredit it with better evidence. The wrong response is to suppress it. And yet, that's the agenda of these college presidents. By not cooperating with the U.S. News survey, they hope to sabotage the rankings. They say they'll provide superior information. But they want to control what parents and students see. This is soft censorship.

What their students will learn, if they're paying attention, is a life lesson in cynicism: how eminent authorities cloak their self-interest in high-sounding, deceptive rhetoric.

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