As members of the future class of 2009 finalize their early application decisions, a group of four professors from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University have published a new study ranking the desirability of colleges solely based on student preference.
The ranking of 100 colleges, which placed Yale second to Harvard, was the result of the study “A Revealed Preference Ranking of U.S. Colleges and Universities.” The study reported the matriculation choices of over 3,200 high school students from the class of 2000 and collected data, including potential need for financial aid, race and legacy status of the students polled to further explain students’ reasons for matriculation. The goal of the study was to create a college ranking system free from manipulation, thereby relieving pressure on colleges to strategically admit students for the purpose of a favorable ranking, the authors of the study said in their report.
“All of us were somewhat annoyed with the arbitrariness of existing rankings,” said University of Pennsylvania professor and study co-author Andrew Metrick ’89. “There is an interest by students of knowing where the other top students are going.”
Students from the top 10 percent of their high school classes were randomly chosen by their college counselors to participate in the survey. Students provided biographical information, including SAT scores, and revealed to which colleges they were accepted along with where they ultimately chose to enroll.
By asking those students where they enrolled when they were accepted by several different colleges, the economists compiled a won-loss record for each college as if it was a competitor in a chess tournament
To avoid arbitrariness, the four professors compiled a tournament-style win-loss record for the colleges to create a ranked list, Metrick said.
“There’s no real strong reason to think that any of the existing measures [to rank colleges] are compelling measures to judge,” Boston University professor and study co-author Mark Glickman said. “We’re basically using the scientific way to show how schools are perceived.”
Yale Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw said there is always “great difficulty” in such rankings.
“I think students’ [opinions] are important, but that’s not the only way you should assess an institution,” Shaw said. “I’m not sure that reflects the big picture or the quality of the institution necessarily. It’s somewhat of a simplistic approach.”
John Anderson, the director of college counseling at Phillips Academy Andover, said he didn’t see any merit in ranking colleges at all. Because of its narrow focus, the new ranking system does not improve upon already existing ones, Anderson said.
“I think it’s less helpful because it really focuses on the notion of popularity,” Anderson said. “[The survey] seems to me the kind of methodology that equates popularity with quality. I don’t think that just because more students choose university X over university Y that university X is an academically stronger institution.”
But Metrick said that the new form of ranking is not only helpful but accurate, especially when compared to what he said was skewed data from other rankers such as the U.S. News and World Report. Metrick said that to attract new readers every year, magazines distort the facts by altering rankings.
“My honest opinion is that U.S. News is trying to sell magazines,” Metrick said. “I don’t mean to cast suspicion on any individual ranker, but in reality the quality [of colleges] changes very slowly. We don’t measure quality: we measure desirability.”
Some students thought that a new report measuring only the desirability of a university was unnecessary.
“A published report based solely on student opinion is kind of superfluous since students conduct their own informal survey when they apply by talking to college friends and former schoolmates,” Duncan Greenberg ’08 said.