The Absurdity of College Rankings

Factoid: College ranking systems are a joke so why are they central to the “strategic positioning plan”?

This past Thursday seemingly brought bad news for the University of Minnesota administration. A “Breaking News Update” at The Minnesota Daily’s website informed the university community that “the University was ranked 524th out of 569 schools in a recent survey of top colleges by Forbes.” Given that the central goal of the 2005 university “Strategic Positioning Plan” was to become one of the “top three public research institutions in the world,” the Forbes rankings could not have been a welcome sign for President Bruininks and other U of M administrators.

However, the administration should really not despair. The Forbes rankings, like all college rankings systems, are largely a joke given that the criteria used to rank schools are arbitrary and often do not reflect what is important to individual students. For instance, 25% of the Forbes ranking is based on the number of alumni found in the 2008 “Who’s Who in America” while another 25% is based on student evaluations of professors at I am not sure why these two factors should make up half of the ranking criteria. The first seems like a strange way to pick a school while the second relies on a small self-selected sample of student evaluations to pass judgments on entire teaching populations.

But this is the problem with all ranking systems: the arbitrary nature of the criteria. What may be important to some prospective students might not be important to others. Thus, a school’s “overall ranking” has little meaning.

Nevertheless, it is hard to feel sorry for Bruininks and company upon the release of the Forbes rankings. When one lives by arbitrary ranking systems, you die by them as well. By focusing so heavily on the “top 3” goal in the Strategic Positioning Plan, the administration has now set itself up for ridicule every time some new arbitrary ranking system comes out which shows that the U is not living up to this stated goal.

Moreover, it is even harder to feel sorry for President Bruininks given that the release of new negative rankings seems to produce no accountability on his office. Quite the contrary ñ even in the wake of the new Forbes rankings, the Sunday Star Tribune gave us a front page profile of our glorious president who remains “True to U,” as the title of the article stated. While at times raising doubts about Bruininks vision, the vast majority of the article could have been written by the U of M marketing department. It let us know that despite his $455,000 salary, Bruininks is a man of the people who fishes and actually introduces himself to University employees all the while rebelliously fighting for his “audacious goal of becoming one of the ‘top three public research institutions in the world.'”

But Bruininks goal is not rebellious at all. It sets no unique vision for the U of M. Rather, it relies on criteria imposed by others ñ namely those who rank colleges. In other words, Bruininks “Strategic Positioning,” and its “top 3” goal, represent the height of mediocrity and subservience to the imperatives of others. It appears that we will have to wait until Bruininks’ departure for the possibility of a truly bold vision for the U of M’s future. Until then, we are at the whim of Forbes and U.S. News and World Report.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].