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Michigan Ranked Amid World’s Top Colleges. U of M Official Says, “Students Shouldn’t Use Rankings.”

Rankings. Best luxury car. Best restaurant. Best city to raise a family in. Best college. Editorial teams know that rankings sell. Rankings sell magazines better than sex in some cases. The annual ranking of American colleges by U.S. News and World Report puts painful pinpricks in over-sized academic egos every year as colleges and universities jostle for top spots and, of course, top students and the tuition revenue that comes with them. Last year, the University of Michigan came in at number 28 (out of 1,600) in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2011 college ranking of national universities (liberal arts colleges, such as Bowdoin, are broken in their own categories). Harvard, and Princeton tied for the number one spot, and the California Institute of Technology (CIT), a school with a total undergraduate enrollment of 967, came in at number 5 on the list.

CIT, however, managed to score huge this year with its admirers across the pond. In England, the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine published its 2011-2012 list of the world’s 400 best colleges and universities. The story made news around the world because Harvard did not appear in the number one spot, as it had in the THE’s 2010 rankings of the world’s 200 best colleges and universities. This year, the California Institute of Technology was ranked number one and the shocked, appalled and thoroughly outraged administrators at Harvard had to make do with coming in second.

The University of Michigan was listed as the 18th best college in the world, an interesting honor for an institution that has seen its U.S. News and World Report rankings slip a bit. In 2008, U.S. News ranked Michigan the 25th best national university and in 2007, Michigan was ranked number 24, tied with UCLA. In 2006, the University of Michigan was ranked second, behind UC-Berkeley on the U.S. News list of best public universities. The University of Michigan’s ranking slipped a bit this year on the THE list of the world’s best universities, as well. Last year, the college was ranked the 15th best in the world. Despite the slip, the University of Michigan’s international reputation via the THE rankings has climbed (up from 36th in 2005) significantly.

Since the debut of college rankings, college administrators have been critical of attempts to quantify the quality of a college or university and of the idea that rankings might be presented to students and their families as the best way to choose a college or university.

Rick Fitzgerald is a spokesman for the University of Michigan. He said, “U.S. News and World Report’s are certainly the most watched rankings. However, everybody who does these rankings seems to have their own criteria.”

Would Michigan officials say the same thing if the institution sat atop the U.S. News and World Report rankings chart instead of Harvard University? Fitzgerald chuckled. “We do really well in the rankings, but even with that these rankings are one piece of information for students to decide where to invest in their education.”

Fitzgerald’s advice is, oddly enough, backed up by a Harvard student. Alexander Heffner published a piece in U.S. News and World Report in March of 2011 titled, “A Harvard Education isn’t As Advertised.” In his piece, Heffner argues that Harvard has led a “masterful public relations campaign to claim the mantle of what’s best in American education.”

Ouch.

Heffner goes on to write:

But as any undergraduate who actually attends the school knows, the Harvard education is overrated. Harvard’s traditional emblem of Veritas, in practice, is a one-dimensional search for truth that weds students more to cold facts than to their teachers or classmates. Yet all high school seniors in America feel the allure of the nation’s most-sought-after degree, and believe it is the top prize because of the unmistakable notion that Harvard leads to superior advantages throughout life. That unmatched endowment, generous financial aid, world-class faculty—and who can forget that consistent top ranking?—guarantee it.

Harvard may be ranked number one nationally and number two in the world, but Alexander Heffner suggests the Emperor has no clothes, and little time to interact with undergraduate students. Heffner writes:

In reality, more often than not, faculty here are inaccessible, students are unengaged interpersonally, and two way education is an anathema. After a recent class, I remarked to the tenured professor that I had completed more in-depth research papers in high school, where I had possessed unrivaled access to my teachers and unlimited guidance during the research process, than I had in my time in Cambridge. “That’s the problem with this place,” the professor grinned, not in the least surprised. “There is not enough contact between professors and students.”

Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald offers up some final advice that reflects both on the fact that the University of Michigan is ranked the 28th best university in the nation and the 18th best university in the world. “What we would typically tell people is that these kinds of rankings are not how students should pick institutions.”

It’s sound advice that the University routinely ignores when touting its own appearances near the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. On September 13, 2011 this piece appeared in the University Record, the newspaper of the University of Michigan:  “U-M again ranks near top in U.S. News & World Report rankings.” Harvard student Alexander Heffner might have dubbed the University Record news piece written by a university public affairs staffer a part of a masterful public relations campaign. He might be right, too. 

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