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Mathematicians Deconstruct US News College Rankings

timothy posted about 6 years ago | from the deep-springs-college dept.

Education 161

An anonymous reader writes "US News makes a mint off its college rankings every year, but do they really give meaningful information? A pair of mathematicians argues that the data the magazine uses is all likely to be at least somewhat relevant, but that the way the magazine weights the different statistics is pretty arbitrary. After all, different people may have different priorities. So they developed a method to compute the rankings based on any possible set of priorities. To do it, they had to reverse-engineer some of US News's data. What they found was that some colleges come out on top pretty much regardless of the prioritization, but others move around quite a lot. And the top-ranked university can vary tremendously. Penn State, which is #48 using US News's methodology, could be the best university in the country, by other standards."

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Reputation (5, Insightful)

Reality Master 201 (578873) | about 6 years ago | (#25305543)

A college degree is an education, and that should be of paramount concern. It's also nice to be in a place you'd enjoy living, etc.

But then there's reputation. You might get the same education at CMU and MIT, but if you're looking for jobs, all other things being equal, someone's gonna pick the MIT grad because it'd a bigger name. I realize it's variable across fields and with individuals, but names mean something to a lot of people, particularly when they're not really qualified to judge on merits.

Re:Reputation (5, Funny)

Ethanol-fueled (1125189) | about 6 years ago | (#25305613)

George W. Bush graduated from Yale.

and Harvard Business School (2, Informative)

Reality Master 201 (578873) | about 6 years ago | (#25305649)

And even if he weren't a member of one of the more powerful families in the US, he probably would have done pretty well for himself having those names under his belt.

Whether or not he actually learned anything of value, though, is a matter we must pass over in silence.

Re:and Harvard Business School (2, Insightful)

Screaming Cactus (1230848) | about 6 years ago | (#25307189)

Maybe he really is a genius... I think it would take someone very clever to appear that inane and yet still get elected. Twice.

Re:Reputation (5, Insightful)

the_weasel (323320) | about 6 years ago | (#25305737)

And he became president. That's a pretty clear success for him. :-)

Re:Reputation (0, Troll)

blair1q (305137) | about 6 years ago | (#25306425)

But it pretty much proves that graduating from college and being elected President is no guarantee that you won't get hundreds of thousands of people killed by starting a war without checking the facts.

Re:Reputation (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306523)

facts?!

didn't you mean

That's actually pretty sad... (5, Interesting)

DeadDecoy (877617) | about 6 years ago | (#25306649)

That's actually a pretty sad indication of how much a college name matters over what you do. I had a friend who did his undergrad at MIT, and when applying for jobs, he was insta-accepted to various tech jobs. No interview. No background checks. Just an open door. Given that, he refused those jobs because that easy entry gave him some indication as to who the companies hired and on what criteria. On the other extreme, were a couple of people who had to work twice as hard because they had to sell the college they attended. It's a little sad, but it's the reality.

Re:Reputation (1)

paulgrant (592593) | about 6 years ago | (#25306745)

And very much a loss for us and his republican party.

Re:Reputation (0)

cashman73 (855518) | about 6 years ago | (#25307101)

Mission Accomplished.

Re:Reputation (4, Informative)

Colonel Korn (1258968) | about 6 years ago | (#25306423)

George W. Bush graduated from Yale.

Until women were allowed into Yale, rich kids could get in without any uncertainty, as long as they weren't dismally stupid. When women were added to the pool (and when other policies designed to attract upper class white students were dropped in 1970), suddenly the acceptance rate had to drop massively, and the choice was made to base all admissions (or nearly all) on academics.

W would probably have been rejected if he were to apply now. His daughter might be raised as a counter-example, but she was a good student in high school. It certainly still helps to be rich and well known, but it's no longer a carte blanche. Graduating's a lot harder now than it was then, too, but that's a different story.

Re:Reputation (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306691)

Until women were allowed into Yale

What?!

Re:Reputation (1)

Ihmhi (1206036) | about 6 years ago | (#25306847)

It certainly still helps to be rich and well known, but it's no longer a carte blanche.

I'm sure if his daughter didn't get in on the first try, she would on the second try - right after construction of Bush Hall was completed.

Re:Reputation (1)

oldhack (1037484) | about 6 years ago | (#25307655)

W would probably have been rejected if he were to apply now. His daughter might be raised as a counter-example, but she was a good student in high school. It certainly still helps to be rich and well known, but it's no longer a carte blanche. Graduating's a lot harder now than it was then, too, but that's a different story.

I doubt it. Legacy and donation are big open "secret" to schools like Yale, and Bushes would have no trouble getting into Yale - it's how they can offer loans and grants to poor students. Besides, Yale is one of the most fruity among Ivies - what would make it so hard to graduate from it?

Re:Reputation (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 6 years ago | (#25305637)

As you note, reputation is just one factor and it really depends on what each student wants to *get* out of their college career. Some students are interested in the education itself. Some are interested in the diploma as a hoop to jump through. Others want to push their careers forward through the reputation of the degree (which may be different from the reputation of the school overall) and through networking. So for some people, reputation is almost irrelevant while for others, it's paramount.

Re:Reputation (1)

Reality Master 201 (578873) | about 6 years ago | (#25305693)

Agreed. It's worth noting, too, that after a while the reputation of your college doesn't matter so much. You may have gone to Wattsamatta U, but if you've got brains and your work is good, you typically wind up doing just fine.

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Re:Reputation (2, Insightful)

jd (1658) | about 6 years ago | (#25305825)

Yes, general reputation matters. Cambridge and Oxford in the UK have enormous street cred with employers and it doesn't matter if they're the best in a given field. They'll always be highly regarded. Specific reputation also matters. A university known to have brilliant students and produce top-notch wizards (Hogwarts?) in that specific field will also count highly with an employer. (It'll be the name HR becomes extremely familiar with, if HR is bothering to track such things - and top employers are more likely to than bottom-of-the-barrel types.)

However, once you're past HR, you've the real professionals to contend with. Again, they'll recognize the big-general names and the big-in-field names if they're any good, but they'll also recognize heavily-published places because it's the published stuff that helps the professionals stay on top. HR doesn't read (and in some places I've applied, I wonder if they could read), so major research universities (where students are likely to be more current but not necessarily more educated) won't rank as high with them, but it should matter a great deal more to those in the field.

Since higher degrees are where people get deep into the research, such places should matter more to those going for a masters or PhD than for the first degree, but it is one of those things that does matter to some extent no matter what degree you're going for. After all, the lecturers can't be any better than the information they have available to them, so non-research places may be 5-10 years behind the curve, as they'll rely on secondary sources of information (such as textbooks) which will never be truly current. On the other hand, if you're the one defining what is current, you aught to be able to teach what is current.

Even then, it's no good if the lecturer knows something if they can't present it, so you still need more feedback. Ideally, you'd know how students change in ability from the start to the end of the course. Even a dumb lecturer can teach students who already know everything they need. The rate of change of student ability in relation to the rate of change expected for students of that level of ability is the magic number you need to tell if the lecturers are any good at imparting information. As I don't think any existing tests currently give you the data you'd need to calculate this, since you can't standardize a test that is inherently much more specialized and all tests these days are standardized (fools that they are), such a calculation is impossible. As such, you either have to pick a number out of thin air, or use surveys to get the students to pick the number out of thin air for you. Either way, it's not the number you want and there's no possible way of determining how close or distant it is. Without that number, the rest of the data only tells you what the upper theoretical limit is on quality, not what the practical day-to-day reality is.

Re:Reputation (5, Interesting)

Abreu (173023) | about 6 years ago | (#25306833)

Something very weird happens here in Mexico.

According to several international studies*, The National Automonous University of Mexico (UNAM), and the National Polytechnics Institute (IPN), the two largest public universities in the country, are the best institutions of higher learning in the country.

Yet it is very common to see "UNAM, IPN, graduates need not apply" in job listings. Why?

Because employers seem to believe that the networking and prestige of the exclusive private schools are worth more than being a graduate of the two institutions that generate 90% of the scientific research in the country!

Sources:
http://www.topuniversities.com/worlduniversityrankings/results/2007/overall_rankings/top_400_universities/ [topuniversities.com]
http://www.arwu.org/rank2008/ARWU2008_TopAmer(EN).htm [arwu.org]

Job discrimination is blatant in Mexican ads. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25307475)

If you understand Spanish, just take a look at any classifieds. They will outright print in the ad that they don't want certain types, like gender and age. There might be anti-discrimination laws, but if so, they certainly are not top priority. If you think discrimination is bad in the USA, then you really don't know what that word means. Try going to Mexico, where outright discrimination is the rule, not the exception.

Re:Reputation (4, Insightful)

johnlcallaway (165670) | about 6 years ago | (#25306015)

Bzzzzt!!! Not always right.

A college degree is a piece of paper. But I'll concede that the education should be the paramount concern. I agree with a concept I read in Money magazine a few years ago when they analyzed how much a difference in salary people got depending on what school they went to and how much they spent. The gist of what they recommended was to get the basics from a community college that can transfer credits, then enroll in the more expensive places. Math is math, science is science, IT is IT up to a point. That way you don't spend two years figuring out that you suck at IT and spending a crap load of money doing it.

Not everyone puts a lot of value in a school's reputation. I'd rather work for a place that hires people based on their abilities instead of on a sheepskin. I worked with a VP of development that had a PhD in neuro-networks from MIT. Smart guy ... lousy to work with. Ego the size of Massachusetts, and the personality of a penny.

I don't even pay attention to whether someone has a degree or not when hiring admins or development staff. In fact, 'professional students' will probably fall down lower on my list than someone who has been attending local colleges taking specific courses. All I care about is how smart and curious they are, and lots of smart, curious people don't go to school. Anybody can learn to code, but the smart and curious people are really good at it. Some of the best IT people I have worked with in the last 25 years had very little college education.

You want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a consultant and have your own business?? Pay for the degree, many people put stock in it.

Aren't that smart?? Pay for the degree, it fools some people.

Otherwise, save your money. Learn what you need, go to a tech school or get a 4 year at a state school if it's that important to you.

If you are smart, curious, and have a strong work ethic, you will do fine.

Re:Reputation (1)

Neanderthal Ninny (1153369) | about 6 years ago | (#25306037)

A medical student at Harvard who graduates at the top of the class is a called a doctor; a medical student at Harvard who graduates at the bottom of the class is still called a doctor.
Actually I know several people who graduated from Harvard and many of them I see are good doctors but few of them I wouldn't let them touch my car lest they kill that too.
Working with many people in the graduate and post-doctorate world where they went to school doesn't mean much to me now. It is more of a networking thing than actual results from the school I see. However, I do see that better named school does have better equipment and better assistance for its students so you may get a better quality graduates.
On the subject of US News and World Report, this is the same old "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." as popularized by Mark Twain which you can skew any statistics to the results you want. Add money then you can really skew the results to anything you want. Look at the financial crisis we are in and you can find that is true.

Re:Reputation (2, Interesting)

mikael (484) | about 6 years ago | (#25307577)

From what I've seen in the UK, many company directors seem to have a preference for graduates from the university that they went to, rather than by any other selection method. But with so many qualified people chasing the same well-paying jobs, you can't really blame them. Otherwise they start using techniques like handwriting analysis, psychometric questionnaires and pop quizzes to divine who is the "safe bet".

Re:Reputation (1)

oldhack (1037484) | about 6 years ago | (#25307583)

Some reputation is more deserving than others. For some schools, the toughest thing is to get in (Ivy League schools). For some others, getting out with degree is the challenge (CalTech, MIT, and other top engineering/science schools like CMU).

The rankings have always been meaningless (2, Interesting)

j1mmy (43634) | about 6 years ago | (#25305555)

At best, they provide a filter for individuals of a certain level of ability of competence, e.g. the average graduate from a school #1 is going to be more capable than the average graduate from school #100.

Re:The rankings have always been meaningless (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 6 years ago | (#25305657)

That's OK. The ranks of college graduates (a la GREs) are also pretty meaningless, so at least there is symmetry.

Re:The rankings have always been meaningless (1)

nine-times (778537) | about 6 years ago | (#25305669)

Now how do you determine whether the person in front of you is "average" for their school?

I agree that it's not completely meaningless. If all I know about two people is that one graduated from Harvard and the other from some random community college, I'm going to assume that the Harvard candidate has something more working in his favor. I won't necessarily know what he has in his favor-- whether it's that he's smart, he knows how to cheat, or he has a rich daddy who pulls strings. But it's a pretty good guess that something got him in and something got him through.

Re:The rankings have always been meaningless (1)

NickCatal (865805) | about 6 years ago | (#25307631)

That is complete and utter bullshit

First off, there is no 'average' college student and just because you go to a #1 school doesn't make you 'capable' of doing jack shit other than going further into debt.

I'm currently a college student (4th year, will graduate after 5 years) and when high school students ask me about college there is really only one thing I say. "Go to the school you feel most comfortable learning at, because you will learn pretty much the same damn thing no mater where you go and ultimately 'where you learned it' doesn't really matter after you have a resume that proves you can apply whatever you learned to the real world"

At least for undergrad.

This is news? (2, Insightful)

afidel (530433) | about 6 years ago | (#25305561)

Doesn't everyone know that the front page rankings are worthless and it's the per area/major rankings and the detailed information that's important? Also the rankings are only a place to start, you need to do an extended visit to your top 5 schools to see how likely you are to be compatible with the school.

Re:This is news? (1, Redundant)

ZX-3 (745525) | about 6 years ago | (#25305753)

When it comes to landing a job, it's the other way around: Ranking within majors (let alone concentration within majors) is meaningless and the only thing that matters is the overall university ranking. All recruiters, headhunters, and HR departments know is the overall reputation. That's why Ivy beats everything, and might-as-well-be-ivy (MIT, Stanford, Duke, etc.) beats everything else.

Re:This is news? (1)

SBacks (1286786) | about 6 years ago | (#25305863)

Wow, I really feel sorry for whatever company you work for. Its been my experience that within a field, people care more what schools are good in that field than what schools are good overall.

In engineering, for example, you'd expect a student from Purdue or Texas or MIT or UC-Berkley to be looked at in a much better light for their high engineering standards.

Re:This is news? (1)

Tawnos (1030370) | about 6 years ago | (#25306055)

This is not my experience graduating from a state school (Cal Poly: SLO) with a degree in Computer Engineering. The grad to job placement for that degree (and many of the other engineering degrees) is phenomenal, because the program is known as being good.

If you're applying as a business student, perhaps that's true. However, I think school prestige in engineering applies more towards grad school than to job placement.

depends heavily on the field (2, Insightful)

Trepidity (597) | about 6 years ago | (#25306537)

In technical areas (e.g. engineering), reputation within the field matters a lot more than generic reputation. People at Boeing know what the good aerospace engineering places are, and hire accordingly. If you graduated from an Ivy with an unknown engineering program, you're more likely to get responses like, "huh, I didn't even know Yale had an engineering program". Meanwhile, if you graduated from a generally lesser-known school with a top-rated engineering program (e.g. Rose-Hulman or Harvey Mudd) you're going to get plenty of offers.

Easy In, Easy Out (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25305585)

Penn State, for example, was 48 according to the magazine's criteria, but it could also be as high as 1 or as low as 59. That variability evolves because Penn State is the best at making sure students graduate

best chicks? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25305587)

which is the best university to meet pretty and easy girls?.

Re:best chicks? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25305675)

which is the best university to meet pretty and easy girls?.

Take your pick, dude [univsource.com] .

Learning is fun (1)

moniker127 (1290002) | about 6 years ago | (#25305589)

Because knowledge is power! Hourray!

Obligatory Simsons quote (1)

Dare nMc (468959) | about 6 years ago | (#25306893)

Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true!
-- Homer Simpson

Penn State and working out who is good or not (4, Funny)

MosesJones (55544) | about 6 years ago | (#25305605)

Penn State, which is #48 using US News's methodology, could be the best university in the country, by other standards.

Was that standard "name which sound most like a Prison". Its good to get some measure of how good a team is but there are of course other approaches, one would be to have a league system with a set play-off format (rather than 100 "bowl" games) with a number if tiers, bottom few teams drop down a tier, winners of the various tiers below move up.

The whole point of the US News figures is that they are arbitrary, this isn't about really working out who is best over the course of the season its about having something to talk about around the water cooler, it would be miles more boring if you know that winning a game by 4 points when someone else loses by 2 means that your ranking goes up. You'd have commentators talking all the time about the "real time change" in the figures, it would be mind-numbingly boring.

Keep the arbitrary figures lets just have a proper league system instead rather than a flat "randomly play teams" format.

Re:Penn State and working out who is good or not (1)

bakawolf (1362361) | about 6 years ago | (#25305709)

Buh? TFA is about Colleges in terms of courses, cost, alumni contributions, student/teacher ratio....not sports competitions.

Re:Penn State and working out who is good or not (1)

Red Flayer (890720) | about 6 years ago | (#25306007)

Score:

MosesJones: 1
Troll victims: 0

Classic trolling style, make one glaring error and then write a seemingly serious post based on the error. Fairly well done, MJ, I give it an 8/10.

Re:Penn State and working out who is good or not (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306407)

If I had to work the college rankings then the 10 teams in the BCS natl. championship game and the other BCS bowl games should be the top 10. Then the other BCS conference teams. In my opinion Harvard, Yale and other patsie schools should be unranked.

Re:Penn State and working out who is good or not (1)

blair1q (305137) | about 6 years ago | (#25306493)

Single-elimination playoffs are arbitrary, too.

A team has a probability of winning or losing a game against any given opponent. Whether they win or lose a single game does not determine whether their probability is above or below 50%, therefore it does not determine whether they are a "better" or "worse" team.

In the end a season of league play and playoffs isn't about who is supposed to win. It's about who might overcome the odds, and who did.

So the best college then (1, Insightful)

Mesa MIke (1193721) | about 6 years ago | (#25305633)

... is the one that comes out on top after taking an average of all the different ranking methods.

Re:So the best college then (2, Insightful)

404 Clue Not Found (763556) | about 6 years ago | (#25305705)

Only if all the criteria are equal in importance to you. If they're not, you end up with weighted averages... leading us right back where we started.

Re:So the best college then (1)

mattwarden (699984) | about 6 years ago | (#25306079)

You want to average independently weighted outputs to arrive at some meaningful answer? Shame on you. And anyway, if you took outputs of all possible (linear) weight combinations and averaged them, then you would just negate the weightings altogether.

How do you account for... (2, Interesting)

Alaren (682568) | about 6 years ago | (#25307241)

...my person favorite method of ranking? I call it the "cognitive dissonance" method of ranking.

The best school is the one that I'm attending.

The coolest part is, when I change schools to do my Ph.D. in the fall, it will be some other university's turn to be the best!

Re:So the best college then (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25307283)

There is an infinite number of ranking methods.

When will this be publically available? (3, Insightful)

agent4256 (893846) | about 6 years ago | (#25305655)

So when will there be a site available so I can see how my college ranked based upon what I deem to be the most important?

US News could take this, print their magazine, then offer this "service" on their site, run by ad revenue to really give the student a run for their money when applying for a college.

... that is if they can afford it.

Re:When will this be publically available? (2, Interesting)

crashcodesdotcom (813209) | about 6 years ago | (#25306023)

Excellent idea. I'd take it one step further...

Offer the service on the site as you suggested. After some time period assign weights based on what the people using the site used. Tada! Maybe then you get a list worth printing?

Re:When will this be publically available? (1)

kbielefe (606566) | about 6 years ago | (#25306287)

Let's see...my undergrad alma mater consistently ranks in the top ten party schools. My graduate alma mater consistently ranks among the top ten football teams, and oh yeah, engineering programs. What was my most important factor in selecting them? Convenience to where I lived and worked at the time. Try to put that into an online service.

Re:When will this be publically available? (1)

SwordsmanLuke (1083699) | about 6 years ago | (#25306759)

Well... In all fairness, you probably don't need a ranking algorithm if "How far away is it from home" is your major overriding concern. I suppose you could use Google maps, though, if you really needed the help. 8^)

Blindingly obvious stuff makes headlines... again (2, Insightful)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | about 6 years ago | (#25305665)

Amazing how the blindingly obvious can get headlines.

If all the different criteria all gave the same result, then there would be no need to make a weighted average; you could just look at any single one. If they give different results, then of course the result will depend on how you weigh them. In fact, if a college ranks number one on any of the criteria, clearly a weighting exists to rank that college number one overall (just rate that one factor 100%...)

You don't need "a pair of mathematicians" to show that. A pair of high-school freshmen could do it.

Re:Blindingly obvious stuff makes headlines... aga (1)

philspear (1142299) | about 6 years ago | (#25305839)

More obvious insight which should get me some money somehow: even if a college is ranked #1, you MIGHT get a better educational experience somewhere else!

Where's my article and money?

Re:Blindingly obvious stuff makes headlines... aga (3, Insightful)

argiedot (1035754) | about 6 years ago | (#25305987)

I thought the bit where the best result would be the point nearest the line from the origin to the polytope (containing the bunch of points representing universities' parameters) passing through the point representing weights was the important bit not that different weights give different results. While what you said _is_ blindingly obvious, the other thing isn't. It might be more useful to use this method than to simply recalculate all scores using the new weights.

Re:Blindingly obvious stuff makes headlines... aga (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306777)

Yeah, but could a caveman do it?

Our university didn't feature in the top 10... (1, Insightful)

syousef (465911) | about 6 years ago | (#25305717)

...so we made up our own top 10! We even made it sound more authoritative with better hand waving mathematics. Take that US News!

Only one statistic that matters. (4, Funny)

nog_lorp (896553) | about 6 years ago | (#25305831)

Percentage female. If you are going into engineering (face it, you are) try to get in to a liberal-arts dorm.

Re:Only one statistic that matters. (1)

pjt33 (739471) | about 6 years ago | (#25306555)

Or you could go to wherever the headline writer went. If they believe that mathematicians have taken up Derrida's agenda then there must be considerable overlap between maths and arts there.

Re:Only one statistic that matters. (1)

TerranFury (726743) | about 6 years ago | (#25306641)

If they believe that mathematicians have taken up Derrida's agenda

That's Godel's incompleteness theorem, pretty much.

Re:Only one statistic that matters. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306613)

You would literately go crazy being around the dumbest people god has even seen. Why would you do that to yourself?

Re:Only one statistic that matters. (1)

nog_lorp (896553) | about 6 years ago | (#25307035)

No, you are around some of the smartest people... during class. Off hours, do you really want to be around a bunch of smart asses? Either you are going to be at your computer doing homework or out partying.

My school is 56% male. As far as dorms go though, the engineering dorm is about 90% male. The liberal arts dorm is only 33% male.

Just as SAT is useless after you're in college (3, Insightful)

Overzeetop (214511) | about 6 years ago | (#25305845)

Once you get your first job, where you graduated from (name recognition) is less important than the intelligence of the student and what you're really done. Don't get me wrong, you should probably consider one of the "top 20" in your field, but you're just as likely to get a good (or better) answer from people in your future industry than from a magazine. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but unless you happen to be in one of the few snobby professions it doesn't matter. Finding a good "fit" for college is almost as important as the curriculum itself.

Now, if you're going on to do something great (and almost all of you can put your hands down - you either weren't born with the brain or the parents; I'm included in that class, too, fwiw) you should consider finding the top graduate program in your field. Not one of the top, THE top, as judged by your peers. Then school will matter, because when you get near the top, snobbery is almost everything. Your parents, your intellegence, your charisma, and your degree for the "three of four" ticket to stardom. You can need at least three and get to the top. Actually, I think you can only have three - if you get all four your competition will be jealous and cut you down like a dog.

Re:Just as SAT is useless after you're in college (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306085)

you're just as likely to get a good (or better) answer from people in your future industry than from a magazine.

Is that really feasible? It's not like there's someone in your industry who has sampled a lot of universities. He might be able to say "Penn State sucks" or "Penn State rules" if he went to Penn State. If he didn't, then no matter what his expertise in the field, he's just not going to have a clue about Penn State.

How can expertise in an industry translate to expertise about colleges?

Playing the numbers (5, Interesting)

timholman (71886) | about 6 years ago | (#25305847)

Several of the metrics that U.S. News uses do seem to be arbitrarily weighted, leading to some bizarre contortions on the part of the various schools to enhance their ratings. Most of the data is self-reported by the universities, which clearly provides a powerful motivation to spin or "enhance" the numbers to one's advantage. I have no doubt that several colleges fudge the numbers to raise their rankings, leading to a lot of frustration at other schools that are playing by the rules but feel that they're being cheated in the rankings.

And some of the metrics make little sense. For example, engineering schools can raise their rankings by several places just by having one or more faculty members in the National Academy of Engineering. Yet NAE membership is essentially meaningless in terms of research and teaching, and hardly more prestigious than having faculty members who are Fellows in other established engineering societies. Yet U.S. News ignores the number of Fellows in IEEE, ASCE, ASME, etc., and focuses on NAE membership. So why the emphasis on NAE? Probably because the NAE told U.S. News that they were the most important engineering society, and U.S. News never questioned it, when in fact the NAE has almost negligible impact on higher education.

Re:Playing the numbers (1)

Hoplite3 (671379) | about 6 years ago | (#25306235)

US News has a strong incentive to jiggle the arbitrary weights each year. That way the rankings change and everyone needs to buy a new copy of the magazine. They're out there 'making' news.

I've heard that the single biggest predictor of a college's ranking in the US News rankings is the endowment size. In other words, if you knew the size of the endowments of all colleges and ranked them in money order, you'll get a high fraction of the ranking consistent with US News.

Re:Playing the numbers (1)

timholman (71886) | about 6 years ago | (#25306417)

I've heard that the single biggest predictor of a college's ranking in the US News rankings is the endowment size. In other words, if you knew the size of the endowments of all colleges and ranked them in money order, you'll get a high fraction of the ranking consistent with US News.

That actually makes a great deal of sense. Large endowments are built from donations by loyal, successful, wealthy alumni who clearly believed they received a worthwhile education. Plus, big endowments can insulate a school from periodic economic hardships and the whims of state legislators, and continue to provide resources to faculty and students when government funding is cut. Those are VERY big advantages when choosing a college to attend.

Re:Playing the numbers (1)

Neoprofin (871029) | about 6 years ago | (#25307437)

The problem I'd see with this is that someone donating money isn't any kind indicator that they got a quality education. I'm sure the obvious example someone on Slashdot would make is Yale. If Bush gave half a trillion dollars (don't ask) to Yale as an endowment to fund the George W. Bush Center for Peace and Prosperity would it mean he got a good education? What about people who got a quality education but in a field that doesn't lead to retiring with enough wealth to make major endowments, or alumni who feel they owe their success to someone else like their home town. What if they love their school but learned absolutely nothing because they spent the whole time partying?

I can understand it being helpful to the school, providing scholarships in particular, but I refuse to accept it as a measure of quality education. Most the people I know who ran out to get class rings and school gear aren't the ones who went to school out of a thirst for knowledge.

Re:Playing the numbers (1)

Alomex (148003) | about 6 years ago | (#25307291)

Correlation with another measure is in no way an argument against the original measure. Net income is highly correlated to where you live, this in no way implies that net income is a bad or irrelevant economic measure.

A measure is shown to be bad if it consistently and inexplicably gives a different ranking than the natural order of what is supposed to be measuring.

Re:Playing the numbers (3, Insightful)

blair1q (305137) | about 6 years ago | (#25306511)

What I want to know is why U.S. News considers itself qualified to rate colleges in the first place.

Re:Playing the numbers (1)

tool462 (677306) | about 6 years ago | (#25306927)

It doesn't really matter why or if they consider themselves qualified. I could put out my own list of rankings too, if I felt like it. What's odd to me is why so many readers feel that US News is qualified to do so.

Less than useless.... (2, Insightful)

Afforess (1310263) | about 6 years ago | (#25305875)

What does it matter how good a particular college is? What are they basing it off? Satisfaction polls? Tuition cost? Income? Alumni? I find that it is best to compare departments to find the best college (Compare Engineering Departments, Compare Math Departments... etc...) Who cares if a University makes #8 at US News and Reports, if it is because of its fine arts programs and you want a computer science major?

The reason that they are pretty irrelevant (1)

antifoidulus (807088) | about 6 years ago | (#25305905)

is that in order to sell more magazines every year(and not have people read the rankings from years previous) they radically and arbitrarily change the criteria. Ever actually try to track the rankings? A school will gain 10, lose 5, gain 2, lose 7 over the course of 4 years. Now obviously schools do change, but lets face facts, Universities, esp. ones that have been around for a few centuries, are not highly dynamic beasts. How different really is the Harvard of this year compared to last? Or even compared to Harvard of 1997?

Maybe if US News actually kept relatively static criteria it would be interesting, but that doesn't sell very many magazines, does it?

Re:The reason that they are pretty irrelevant (1)

internerdj (1319281) | about 6 years ago | (#25306051)

Where is your sense of elitism and pride?

In recent news.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25305953)

In recent news, a pair of mathematicians from Penn State, have re-weighted US News analysis of top universities so people will think they went to a better school.

Up next, a quartet of Yale theologians have reinterpreted the bible and discovered that "the promise land" is actually New Haven, Connecticut.

Reinventing the wheel? (2, Informative)

Sudarshan Lamkhede (907061) | about 6 years ago | (#25305955)

I think this problem could have been easily solved by what Information Retrieval community has been practicing for decades now: Vector Space Model. In fact just going by the description of the method provided by the news article, it seems that the their method is not much different than the VSM model and simple cosine similarity could have been applied between the priority vector ("query vector") and each university's score("docuement vectors") along the 7 dimensions. Then all universities could be ranked in the descending order of the cosine, 1 being the perfect match. Am I missing something or this is a reinvention of the wheel?

Stanford is pretty but... (4, Interesting)

fishbowl (7759) | about 6 years ago | (#25305969)

Having been to Stanford as a visiting scholar recently, I have to say I am very glad I never went there (tuition and housing orders of magnitude out of my reach or not.)

Things I take for granted on a university campus, such as being able to walk into a library, or to use public wi-fi while sipping coffee somewhere on the grounds... These things are actually difficult or impossible for a visitor to do -- even a visitor with credentials who is there on academic business! I was *amazed* at the difficulty of getting into the Green Library for instance, and my week was pretty much destroyed by the fact that if you want to use on-campus wi-fi, "you can't", simple as that.

At every turn, everything that could have been convenient for a visitor was hostile. I ended up rushing through my research and spending all my time at a coffee shop in Palo Alto (where the wi-fi was free, and nobody minds if you hang out and work.)

Thanks Stanford, you're awesome.

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

MisterSquid (231834) | about 6 years ago | (#25306349)

This is standard reception for academic guests at many universities and it is a serious problem insofar as electronic access is important to scholarly work (which in most cases it is).

I visited NYU in the Spring and was stunned that it was impossible to get electronic access (wired or otherwise) through the university. My own university (OU) also has no mechanism to allow visitors to access its computing network.

I spent most of last summer in San Francisco and there I rediscovered the Public Library. The SFPL main branch right near the Civic Center is clean, well-designed, and WiFi-open.

OK, the SFPL network engineers (or their contracted delegates) have bolloxed up the WiFi so that it flakes out nearly every five minutes but at least it's there to flake out. What else can one expect where all the real talent work for companies like Google and Cisco?

yeah, we end up accomodating visitors ourselves (1)

Trepidity (597) | about 6 years ago | (#25306723)

At unnamed university where I've spent some time, we basically keep around a wireless router to power on during visits so our visitors can get online from our lab. (It gets powered down the rest of the time to avoid getting spotted by the network police.)

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (3, Informative)

TerranFury (726743) | about 6 years ago | (#25306801)

I'm not positive on this, but I think that part of the reason for this is laws that basically require it. AFAIK, either the college network is classified as an "internal network" (I'm not sure what the real legalese is; I'm paraphrasing), in which case it needs to store privacy-invasive and impractically-large logs of user activity, or it is classified as an ISP, in which case it avoids these issues (and associated liability) but is required to know who is on each IP, which basically necessitates restricted access and obnoxious login pages.

I say this because I did my undergrad at a school that used to keep its wifi completely open and unencrypted (Want security? Go through a VPN.) which was in fact quite wonderful. (This worked, I suppose, because it was in an idyllic little New England town, where the locals weren't a problem.) But after I left, I continued to get a few emails from various services on campus, and one was to the effect of my previous paragraph (i.e., that they were changing wifi access to meet new federal regs that they really didn't want to bother with but had to). So if I were to go back now, I get the impression that I'd be faced with login screens and such.

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

TerranFury (726743) | about 6 years ago | (#25307215)

Actually, I found the email buried in old backups (grep, how I love thee).

Dear Thayer Community,

I wanted to give you advance warning of changes in the works that will affect how you access Dartmouth's network. Central Computing Services (PKCS) has assured me they will make sure the changes are well announced beforehand, and this communication is an early start on this. The bottom line is that access to Dartmouth's "regular" wireless (and eventually wired) network will require user authentication.

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), enacted in 1994, required telecommunications providers to cooperate with law enforcement agencies in wiretapping telephone calls. Online services such as e-mail were specifically exempted at this time. In March 2004 CALEA was extended to include internet services. This was driven in part by the advent of voice-over-ip (VoIP) technologies, but "private networks" were specifically exempted from this change. Since this time, Dartmouth, along with many other education institutions, has been examining what it means to be a private network. Our current network is not considered private because we allow anyone to use it, regardless of whether they are affiliated with the college in any way. However, our current network would also not allow us to comply with wiretap requests received under CALEA. After reviewing costs and privacy concerns, we decided to change our network to be a private network, while at the same time retaining an unauthenticated access to the Internet. Over the summer we will be implementing this project. We will be contracting with an outside ISP to provide this unauthenticated access. Once completed, anyone who wants to use the wired network will need to be a member of the Dartmouth community, and will need to verify their identity before they can use the network. The wireless network will present options for accessing the Internet without authenticating, or accessing Dartmouth resources by authenticating. The unauthenticated option will be available to members of the local community, visitors, guests, etc. as well as any member of the Dartmouth community who wants to connect to the Internet without authenticating themselves. We are currently testing several different options, so additional information about how the authentication process will take place, and how it will affect individual users will be available as final determinations about which method to use are made.

If you have questions or concerns, please let me know.

[Sysadmin's name]

So it sounds like they're doing the absolute best thing here that they can, given the rules: They're maintaining private network status for students, but assuming ISP status for everyone else (and continuing to give out free wifi). But I expect that such altruistic behavior is unusual for sysadmins, who would avoid the not-strictly-necessary trouble of these kinds of arrangements. (E.g., this is certainly not the way things are done at Georgia Tech. Their I.T. "services" are positively Dilbert-esque [technet.com] .)

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

fishbowl (7759) | about 6 years ago | (#25307503)

>I'm not positive on this, but I think that part of the reason for this is laws that basically require it.

Baloney. The campus where I work year-round has a quite open public network, public terminals all over the place, libraries and other buildings are simply open-doors affairs, etc., etc.

And if it's "laws", they don't seem to follow them at UC campuses. Stanford is allowed to do whatever they want to do, but the point here was that, in this one instance, THEY were in a position to make a good impression on ME, and failed. I actually enjoyed the realization that, the further away from the campus I got, the happier I was.

I am a scholar in an academic profession and university visits are a routine part of my career. I'm in a position to speak on this subject, and I think I'm going to start blogging on the comparative merits of schools from the point of view of a visiting researcher.

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

mschuyler (197441) | about 6 years ago | (#25307203)

OK, the SFPL network engineers (or their contracted delegates) have bolloxed up the WiFi so that it flakes out nearly every five minutes but at least it's there to flake out. What else can one expect where all the real talent work for companies like Google and Cisco?

Aww, c'mon, guy. That hurts! :-) Public libraries had Wi-Fi way before Starbucks. I put Wi-Fi in my library and pointed the routers at the parking lots, for free of course. The older routers had to be reset constantly. I think things have improved since then. Perhaps SFPL still has old stuff, though that is unlike them. I did intentionally 'bollox' port 25, sorry, tough, getoverit. It was a year before the Director of the place even knew it was up. I kinda forgot to tell her. But she got an award for her foresight anyway. That kinda sucked, but it's okay. I'm now retired so I doncarenomore.

signed,

untalented sysadmin for a library

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

fishbowl (7759) | about 6 years ago | (#25307483)

>This is standard reception for academic guests at many universities

Not *that* many, but funny you mentioned NYU, since I had another story about my experience there...

One of the best experiences I had in SF was in a rental car, which had a built-in voltage inverter (cool! it was a pontiac vibe), and all I had to do was feed a parking meter, to have access to really decent free public wi-fi.

OK, not the most comfortable arrangement, but it was a godsend at the moment.

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

Omkar (618823) | about 6 years ago | (#25307195)

This is whoever you're visiting's fault. They should have had you set up properly, with temp access to the libraries and wifi. If it isn't obvious, all the things you mentioned are painless for students (so it shouldn't factor into an assessment of the undergrad program). Also, if you needed in Green, why are you on /.? I've never had to go there to get anything technical :)

Re:Stanford is pretty but... (1)

fishbowl (7759) | about 6 years ago | (#25307533)

>Also, if you needed in Green, why are you on /.

I thought everybody knew I was a fine arts major, studied entertainment law, intellectual property, etc.

I'm also a software developer but that's just my day job. Well, hopefully (fingers crossed, waiting for funding).

It sounds like a voting system problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25305999)

...which means they'll run afoul of Kenneth Arrow.

And next..... (2, Insightful)

Gat0r30y (957941) | about 6 years ago | (#25306017)

Huggins and Pachter are now applying their methods to voting in elections with more than two candidates.

Elections have more than two candidates?

damn I gotta get out of the US for a while

Re:And next..... (1)

blair1q (305137) | about 6 years ago | (#25306543)

Elections have more than two candidates?

They would if the third parties didn't all turn out to be either special-interest groups or whackjobs kiting on the First Amendment.

Re:And next..... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25307185)

No doubt trying to emulate the two primary parties...

PENN STATE!!! (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306169)

Where beer is Job 1

No link to paper? (4, Informative)

siwelwerd (869956) | about 6 years ago | (#25306175)

I guess it's too much to ask for the article to give a link to the actual paper... http://arxiv.org/abs/0805.1026 [arxiv.org]

For Graduate school (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306179)

For graduate schools one can get customized rankings at this website [phds.org] .

woo hoo! (1)

australopithecus (215774) | about 6 years ago | (#25306227)

now everybody wins!

gives new meaning to "oh yea well I did attend the Harvard of the --insert region here--" :D

Rankings (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306347)

I've actually played with ranking data quite extensively, and usually for reasonable weighthings of the parameters the movement in position is in the order of plus/minus 5 places. Sure, Penn State would be number one if all one cared about is retention rates, but really nobody does. Instead we can define a range of reasonable weights for retention rates (say between 7% and 35% of the total weight) and test all possible combinations in that space, suddenly Penn State place goes up and down a fairly small amount.

A bigger concern is what is the value of selecting a school based on the ranking as a whole, without paying attention to the your likely area of major. Say, Yale is a great school but in CS is a non-entity. If you are positive CS is your thing, MIT, Stanford, Harvard and Princeton are far better choices.

Anecdotal (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25306721)

I'm a law student. I also attend one of the most maligned law schools in the country. Not entirely by choice.

Oh sure, I wanted to go to the University of Michigan. I wanted to go to Georgetown. I applied to a number of elite law schools, and was surprisingly accepted by most of those that I applied to. The problem was money. Law school, as you can imagine, is pretty expensive. It's typically a 3-year program that runs anywhere from $25-50k/year for tuition alone. Build in the cost of books, rent, food, etc. and you're looking at another $15-20k/year. Federal student loans aren't that generous, and the terms on the private loans make them rather detestable. While my grades were good enough to get me into those high-end schools, hey weren't good enough to make be stand out enough to get much in the way of scholarships. And since I was paying for school by myself, I had to take a look at my safety schools. So I started researching the various ranking systems and what criteria they used.

One of the major ranking indexes I looked at, for example, heavily weighted entrance requirements as well as the attrition rate. The result was that the schools who only accepted people with the best GPAs and LSAT scores ranked high. That was expected. But the attrition rate? By its rankings, if two schools accepted students with the exact same criteria, the one with fewer failures/drop-outs after the first year ranked higher. That struck me as being really odd. A more rigorous program is desirable, and will likely result in more failures. Meanwhile, the school I go to will take in very average students the first year, and has a huge failure rate; anywhere from 20-50%, depending on who you ask. The first year professors are brutal, and the whole year is designed not only to teach you, but to weed out the people who don't really want or deserve to be there. Consequently, they get hammered in almost every ranking except for "most competitive students," where it's in the top 10 in the country.

Then I started noticing some other oddball problems. That same ranking service said that the average undergraduate GPA and LSAT score were below the school's minimum requirements. At several schools, I noticed that, if they offered part-time programs, it looked like an incredibly low portion of the students were enrolled full time. Then I realized how they were figuring that out: it wasn't by graduation, it was by sampling year-to-year enrollment.

Example: Say a normal student graduates in 3 years. A part-time student graduates in 6. Over 6 years, the school graduates 60 full-time students (let's say they're spread out evenly at 6 per year) and 10 part-time students. The thing is, because of their sampling, those part-time students wind up being counted for twice as long. So at any given time in that 6-year period, you have 18 full-time students, and 10 part-time students. The sample is going to show that more than 1/3 of the student body is part-time, even though the school is graduating six times as many full-time students. It's rather misleading.

I noticed a number of other glaring issues, too. For example, prestigious schools have loads of information published, while the less prestigious schools usually have little more than a few out-of-date statistics. Self-reinforcing, no?

In the end, it felt like the ranking systems were a complete waste. They rank everything but the quality of the education. And while I don't mean to play to the cliche, because I know it's not universally true, but I actually flew around the country and visited a couple of those "elite" schools that I was accepted into. They don't let you forget how "elite" they are. At all. The snobbery was utterly overwhelming. One of them told me that their students were "the Maseratis of law school." /gag

I wound up going to the school that offered me the biggest scholarship.

Interesting... (1)

Relic of the Future (118669) | about 6 years ago | (#25306869)

The part where MIT manages to squeeze into 3rd seems to come up only if you completely de-emphasize freshmen retention. (Unless I'm reading the "plot using higher-dimension mathematics" wrong... which is possible since I wasn't good enough for MIT ;)) Or in other words, it comes in #3 only if you're so supremely confident in your abilities that you're certain you won't be one of THOSE GUYS who flunks out in the first year. And that sort of over-confidence sounds just like MIT students, doesn't it? :)

It's Statistician you moronic freetard (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25307179)

It's like me leaving of the moronic in the title ... freetard doesn't quite cover it. Moronic freetard is right on the money.

Is Anyone Here in Academia? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#25307495)

From the posts I've been reading, it seems like everyone agrees that a college or university matters in name only; it seems like some people actually think you'll receive the same undergraduate education at the University of Vermont as you would at Harvard.

It's simply not true. If you're going to college for a *real* reason--not for your career or because your parents told you to--your main pursuits are intellectual ones. A college like Harvard or Princeton offers an intellectual experience far greater than those offered by lesser schools.

These aren't called the best schools in the country just because they have fancy names. They're the best schools in the country because they have the best faculty and students. People who say otherwise are just angry that they weren't smart enough to matriculate.

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