University of Minnesota – deception campus

Morris plays the rankings game, trickery and all. It should present itself as is - a respected public liberal arts school.

As I was driving to school last week, Minnesota Public Radio announced it was being brought to me courtesy of “the University of Minnesota-Morris, ranked third nationally in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of colleges.”

I nearly skidded off the road laughing: Did the University’s Morris campus open up an Office of Ridiculous Propaganda it didn’t tell us about? Such an outrageous claim demands attention.

But before I begin, let me inoculate a pesky argument that seems to come up whenever college rankings are discussed, the claim that “rankings don’t matter.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, yes they do – especially if you’re applying for something straight out of college.

After all, Morris’ own advertisement shows it certainly believes rankings matter; only its method of advertising is highly deceptive.

Let’s take apart its radio advertisement, piece by piece:

The overall claim is so grandiose that it makes Morris sound like the third-best institute of higher education in the country, if not the world.

Of course, by slipping in the word “college” its parameters are dramatically narrowed to liberal arts colleges: institutions that grant only bachelor’s and associate’s degrees, not master’s degrees and doctorates. This eliminates the entire Ivy League and the litany of other traditional, top-50 university undergraduate programs.

Now that we know its “top three” claim only refers to colleges, does the Morris campus actually fall into the top three? Umm Ö no.

When I think of top liberal arts colleges, the names that come to mind are Amherst College, Williams College, Carleton College, the Claremont Colleges, Wellesley College, Macalester College and the like. Heck, before I moved to this region I didn’t even know there was more than one campus of the University of Minnesota system.

So what “top three” is Morris ranked in? Public liberal arts colleges. That’s a fairly specific group, so it would help to look at what other public schools are in this trio:

No. 1 is the Virginia Military Institute, whose claim to fame is attempting to deny the entry of women in the 1990s, and No. 2 is St. Mary’s College of Maryland. What? You’ve never heard of this public St. Mary’s? Neither have I.

Now, I’m not knocking public schools. There are plenty of top public undergraduate programs in the country: Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan and Wisconsin are only a few of those in the top-50 universities.

But in the realm of liberal arts colleges, they don’t fare too well. No. 1 public Virginia Military Institute sits at No. 77 overall among “national liberal arts colleges.” St. Mary’s College of Maryland sits at No. 87 overall.

The University of Minnesota’s Morris campus doesn’t even break the top-100 liberal arts colleges overall; rather, it sits in the unsorted “third tier” with the likes of Oglethorpe University, Eastern Mennonite University and many other schools neither you nor I have ever heard of.

The field of candidates isn’t very large either. The U.S. News and World Report rankings only list a total of 20 public liberal arts colleges, hardly a broad field to be compared with. Suddenly that “top-three” ranking doesn’t sound all that nifty. If you keep narrowing a field, you can be in the top three of anything.

At the same time, I can understand why the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus tries to play up its ranking: Though most schools abhor these systems, the popularity of rankings among applicants and employers forces colleges to try and use them to compete.

The problem has many layers: There are simply too many colleges and universities in the United States, particularly private institutions. With many more than 1,000 colleges and universities, sorting out the wheat from the bales of chaff is a headache. Rankings are a great shortcut around visiting hundreds of schools and doing enough college research to write a doctoral thesis. However, rankings allow only so many spaces at the top.

Those schools that don’t make the cut have to struggle to sell themselves, touting their strengths by using specific categories within the rankings or using important factors not included in the rankings. In the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus’ case, it tried a strategy of spinning fairly weak categorical rankings into an outright deception.

What makes the situation even more absurd is that I know the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus is a strong campus.

It only took a few years of living here to discover it’s a competent, strong college with a good reputation in the upper Midwest. Why can’t it advertise itself as such? As one of the better schools in the public system, it shouldn’t want for applicants.

With so many state schools ranked below it, enough qualified applicants in Minnesota and the reciprocity states, it should be able to fill up its ranks. Why does it need to resort to such shady tactics? A dignified university should play it straight. It’s the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus, not DeVry.

Bobak Ha’Eri welcomes comments at [email protected]