Fuzzy math from when Columbia was ranked #11
And so did former Spectator opinion writer Marc Tracy on Sept. 8, 2003. “Fuzzy Math,” a diatribe against U.S. News and World Report rankings, was published in a year when “Columbia University slipped from spot 10 to spot 11.” It’s worth reading.
For one thing, it’s interesting to note the irate, vituperative—or “vigorous,” as the author himself acknowledges—tone of the piece. Apparently, it sucked being ranked #11.
But what’s even more interesting is the writer’s proposed alternative to USNWR’s ranking system: just using acceptance rates. “The college selection process works like a free market: the kids are the consumers, chasing the limited goods of college acceptance letters,” the author claims. “So what could be a better way of measuring which colleges are most desirable to high school seniors than by stepping back and letting Adam Smith’s invisible hand do what it will?”
Like Dawson, the author is unconditionally opposed to USNWR rankings. But he isn’t opposed to rankings. College applicants will always look for a way to stack colleges up against one another, and they need a mechanism to do that.
But where does that leave us?
Using acceptance rates as a measure of a college’s worth seems even worse to me than using USNWR. Early action and early decision programs, application-happy high schoolers who apply to a million schools they don’t even want to go to, and the fact that acceptance at a college and matriculation are two completely different things are just a few flaws with the notion that “acceptance rate is a valid yardstick because it demonstrates how many students want to attend a given school as adjusted for the size of the school.”
Even if the author’s argument seems specious, the piece is still worth reading. History helps put things into perspective. We’re looking down on the world from fourth place now. But it’s helpful to see things from 11th place as well.
Plus, the piece is well written. You can enjoy it even for aesthetic reasons.
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