Friday Fragments | Confessions of a Community College Dean

It’s college ranking season again. It’s the time of year when I manage to believe two things at once: the U.S. News rankings are ridiculous, and Williams beating Amherst is right and proper.

Tim Burke’s reflections on college rankings are well worth the read, if you haven’t seen them.

Washington Monthly has issued its annual rankings, which are based much more on social mobility than on wealth and prestige. Public institutions do much better in the Washington Monthly version. And yes, even there, Williams outranks Amherst.

The entire concept of ranking is tricky, given that it suggests an unambiguous set of criteria. But different readers rely on different criteria, and it’s fully appropriate that they do. The U.S. News rankings are a consumer guide for parents who want to maximize the chances of their kids getting high-paid jobs. The Washington Monthly rankings are aimed more at policy makers, in service of an agenda (with which I substantially agree) of egalitarianism and improved social mobility. Other rankings (“Best Party Schools!”) assume other audiences.

Having recently gone through college selection with The Boy and The Girl—both of whom are in the target demographic for the U.S. News rankings, as high achievers who hoped to cross state lines—I’ll add epistemological humility to my list of misgivings about rankings. That’s because so much of what makes a college a good or bad experience is unknowable in advance.

Will you like your roommate(s)? Will you have good chemistry with a professor (or even a TA) who opens your eyes to a new field? Will you have the one office-hour conversation that changes your life? Will you meet your future spouse? Will you discover passions you had no idea existed? All of those matter, but none of them can be known in advance. And they certainly won’t show up in a ranking.

Instead, and having learned from the experience with TB, I encouraged TG to think of college as a place of happy accidents. Where are you most likely to be accident-prone? Given her interests, proximity to Washington, D.C., seemed much more relevant than some school getting a higher ranking to the third decimal point. For students with other interests, proximity to D.C. might be irrelevant or even negative. Her goals are not the same as her brother’s; the school that made the most sense for her wasn’t the one that made the most sense for him. Each had their own ranking. As they should.

As Burke notes, rankings can offer certain kinds of information. They aren’t entirely useless. But the level of false precision suggests that deep skepticism is in order, even when they manage to get the Williams-Amherst order right.

A few notable responses to recent posts came in this week. In response to the post about developing a love of reading, Gretchen Schaefer tweeted a picture of the whiteboard on her office door on which she puts a sticky note with the title of the book she’s reading at the time. The idea is to show students that reading isn’t only assigned; it’s something that people do of their own volition. It was one of those simple-but-brilliant ideas that immediately made me wonder why more people don’t do it.

In response to the piece on public transportation as a student success issue, my erstwhile co-author Kate Drezek McConnell coined the phrase “no gas, no class.” That has “grant proposal” written all over it. I had to tip my cap.

The piece about one small nugget of information changing an entire conversation elicited a note from Jane Jarrow indicating that the original 1970s language about students with disabilities recording lectures as an accommodation referred to “tape recorders,” and at the time, it was assumed that mass distribution of recordings was effectively impossible. Now that we have cellphone cameras and social media, it’s much easier to record a class clandestinely, edit the recording and distribute it widely and quickly. Older language and current technology don’t match, and the disconnect allows for all manner of mischief. I hadn’t connected the dots that way, so, yes, it certainly qualified as a game-changing nugget for me.

Finally, in answer to a post a few weeks back about terrible job interview experiences, one reader wrote to say that at an interview at an early and vulnerable stage of their career, someone on the committee asked point-blank how they could help the college skirt federal regulations. That was a new one for me. I hope it was new for most of us …