By Isaac Black
Here's a personal footnote to the "rankings" discussion and debate that has gone on for years. Since 1988 or so, I have worked with African-American students, parents and others in regard to how to navigate the college admissions process. From the beginning, I wanted my college selection and counseling work to start with an "assessment" of what a particular student's needs might be. Ideally, I wanted to try and match a student with colleges that, to the best of my knowledge, would be a "perfect fit." An honorable mission, I would think.
Well, guess what? Over 90% of the time, parents and students either initially or ultimately asked about rankings. Is school "A" better than school "B"? What schools have the most highly regarded (fill in the blank) programs? Those parents and students never seemed to be at peace unless we discussed "rankings" and related issues, with me putting my spin and analysis into play.
For whatever reason, there has been (continuously) a need to address the idea of "best schools," and it has never gone away. Not for as long as I can remember. Yearly, as families get ready to navigate the college admissions process, the "which is best" discussion is like a Rite of Passage for almost everyone. In
fact, I cannot imagine any counselor or educator who is in tune with the concerns of students/parents saying anything otherwise. The debate, I would argue, goes deeper than what "we" may or not personally think about rankings. Of course, we often have insights that many don't have (and I'll get to that). Still, for good or bad, there is an intellectual and emotional need that is real, exists, and I see it constantly when I interact with students and their families. Personally, I don't ignore that need.
"America is obsessed with rankings," has been a mantra we have all heard. Just as we continue to look at Consumer's Report, try to rate cars and everything else for their comparative worth and readiness, the "rankings" phenomena is not going away. Early on, it became overwhelmingly obvious to me that the folks I interact with--and it has been hundreds over the years--want input with regard to the "best" colleges and indeed, also the "best" Black colleges. That's a fact and a given. I am not surprised that the annual US News & World Report "ranking" edition sells as it does. I am not surprised that spinoffs like Time's "The Best College for You" have arrived, even if there are no "best lists" per se. Indeed, if we were politicians with voting constituents, I believe every poster here would have to cater to the folks he or she services--and consider their obvious needs.
The pivotal questions are, I would argue: 1) "Is a particular ranking sound?" and, 2) "How do you/we, personally, enlighten?" after taking a look. For me personally, I can't recall a single instance where a question relating to some "rank" didn't open a gateway to valuable discussion with those I serve.
Don't get me wrong. I see tremendous faults in many of the published rankings. I wonder about the methodology used, whether it's US News or Gourman. I look at the lists--not just the so-called top schools, but travel A to Z using markings to highlight institution placement and other data. I see what I believe are mistakes and unfair positioning all the time. From my perspective, there's a lot to be desired.
On the other hand, the rankings have been a tremendous help as I digest data, read between the lines and factor in information I have--based on campus visits, talking to students or other information. I judge and I advise, based on my assessment of many, many factors--not the least of which is the actual student, and his or her needs. When I finish talking, the folks I am working with have a wider perspective and can see many more parts of the puzzle. I try to direct and educate, using everything I am privy to. Students and parents are pleased to learn what's going on, what to look for and how to analyze as much as possible of what's available. Besides the obvious mass media publications, I direct students to viewbooks, guides, websites, articles that I pass along, as well as material I help create. What amazes me is that many who complain about the rankings act as if they--and we--are not part of the process. Also, the truth be told, some of the rankings have led me--and, I am sure, have led many who are reading this--to "discoveries."
Still, yes, I have pet peeves like everybody else. For example, the US News rankings consider alumni contributions, resources like state-of-the-art facilities and "reputation." But I know something is amiss when a school like Spelman College, a historically black college, is not in the top tier, for whatever reason. Whether a school has a billion-dollar endowment or an astronomical observatory is not always the best measure of its value. I've said this before: if there was some way to wave a wand and transform the colleges into basketball teams and place them in a round-robin tournament, I would be betting on a Cinderella team or two. Three hundred teams are not better than Spelman, based on the criteria that I think is important. Perhaps this is why Black Enterprise did an article a couple of years ago that picked the 50 best colleges for African Americans. It was a rankings list that addressed some of my concerns, using an evaluation method different from the one used by US New & World Report. I didn't agree with the resultant rankings or some of the judgment keys
used, but the creators were moving in a direction that made a little more sense to me.
So, no, I don't think the idea of any ranking system is inherently bad. I have no problem pulling useful material from Money magazine's "Best Values," Yahoo's "Most Wired" lists or even looking at one "activist" list offering. The way I see it, a major problem is that every college and university wants to be labeled the best, or at least given a competitive position. And why not? I can see, too, why many might want to point a disparaging
finder at the ranking process. Or pad statistics one way or another. A lot is a stake, to be sure. Still, if the rankings were outlawed tomorrow, I don't see how we would arrive at higher ground. Wouldn't schools with the highest endowments, the most resources and clout, simply solidify their rank and age-old reputations by using the almighty dollar and influence? The way I see it, opportunities for us to look in, analyze and evaluate information would be greatly reduced. Some schools could rest on their laurels for the next hundred years.
To be sure, the debate over better methodologies should continue. That's where my attention--and criticism--will be focused. Evaluations should ring true and be a model of fair play. I think it's a shame, for example, that although 10.7% or thereabouts of the enrolled college students in the US are students of color, the mass-media college publications and key information forums often behave as if these students did not exist.
Me, I have worked with students of all cultures, and try to add the right footnotes and asides. Does anyone remember that I mentioned that historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana has sent more students of color to medical schools in the last seven years than Harvard and every other school in the US? This year, 75 students have gotten acceptance letters. If this is not an astounding story, what is? Indeed, in the Southern
section of the 2001 US News "Best Regional Schools" rankings--holding the 18th position--sits little Xavier. I would argue that sometimes, even if there are faults in most rankings, that we should look for "discoveries" and enlightenment. The debate should be about achieving fair, high standards for those intent or trying to decide "who's who?"
Isaac Black's Black Excel African American Student's College Guide, published by John Wiley & Son, ISBN 0-471-29552, is available at major bookstores and over the Internet at Amazon.com, BN.com and elsewhere.
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