College rankings: Confusion by degrees

It's nice that Maryland colleges get high rankings, but what does all of it really mean?

August 18, 2010

Along with overloaded U-Hauls, a sure sign that the college season is upon us is the annual release of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

Our initial reaction to this year's U.S. News college report: Say what?

The U.S. Naval Academy, where students have to run laps, do push-ups and shinny up a pole, is a mecca for liberal arts? We can't quite picture the stereotypical liberal arts students — clad in sandals, a T-shirt and cut-offs — grooving at a place that is noted for its courses on engineering and weapons.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for the second year in a row, is the top up and coming college? This school has had more major improvements and extreme makeovers than the TV shows on ABC.

We have also learned that the University of Maryland, College Park has dropped three spots, to No. 56 in the overall ranking of national universities. Make a note of it. Unfortunately, the wizards at U.S. News put their rankings out too soon to catch the effect of the "new guy at the top." This week, Wallace D. Loh, provost at the University of Iowa, was appointed president at College Park. Around here when a new guy takes over (see Buck Showalter at the helm of the Orioles), we expect to see things quickly improve.

Sure, we're proud that so many Maryland colleges and universities made it into U.S. News' much-ballyhooed rankings. But come on. It takes an advanced degree to make sense of the methodology used to produce these U.S. News rankings. The nine classifications of colleges and universities used by the Carnegie Foundation are collapsed into four main groupings. Two of those four categories — regional universities and regional colleges — are broken down into four geographic subsets: North, South, Midwest and West.

In short, almost every college gets something to brag about. Loyola University Maryland, for instance, ranks third among regional universities in the North. Break out the Champagne!

This year, the U.S. News statisticians gave weight to the opinions of a new group — high school college counselors — and subtracted some clout from the opinions of college presidents, provosts and deans. This might explain a few oddities, such as the surge in the rankings of the Naval Academy, a no-nonsense place. Our theory is that high school counselors were getting their revenge by recommending that troublesome seniors go to Annapolis to have their heads shaved and get whipped into shape.

Finally, there are a few important areas of the college experience that the U.S. News rankings overlook. For instance, there is no comparison of the size and speed of the elevators in the dormitories of our nation's colleges. Nor is there a ranking of how close to a dorm you can park the U-Haul. In our experience, parents who help move their offspring into college lodgings are sometimes more concerned with these mundane measures than with the school's lofty ranking.

Officials at the colleges that didn't get high marks in this year's rankings will surely agree — until next year, when they finally earn that coveted spot as 27th-most-improved Midwestern comprehensive technical college.

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