August 19, 2010

What's In a Rank, Part I

For those who missed it, Dartmouth recently received some welcome news regarding its ranking. U.S. News and World Report ranked Dartmouth ninth, up two spots from the eleventh-place rut we’d been stuck in since the 2008 rankings. Forbes also moved Dartmouth up the ladder, to thirtieth from ninety-second.

Some have rejoiced at these ranks, claiming that they show Dartmouth’s improvement in a number of areas. An e-mail and press release from Dartmouth Public Affairs, as well as recent comments from Provost Carol Folt, make much ado about the rise.

Ultimately, though, the reason for Dartmouth’s jump rests more in the methods used by USNWR and Forbes, and less in improvements to the Dartmouth experience.

From 2009 to 2010, Forbes made several changes to their ranking methods, including lowering the weight given to student indebtedness (“Four-Year Debt Load for Typical Student Borrower” goes from 20 percent to 12.5 percent) and increasing the weight given to the average salary of alumni (“Salary of Alumni by” goes from 12.5 percent to 15 percent). Other measures stayed the same, despite their overall bizarreness (like student evaluations of professors on, which Dartmouth students rarely use).

USNWR made changes, too, such as adding a new category (“High School Guidance Counselor Assessment”) and reducing the weight given to the ratings by peer institutions (“Peer Assessment” goes from 25 percent to 15 percent).

We are forced to agree, then, will the conclusions of a contributor over at Dartblog:
So what is Provost Folt taking credit for? Her post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning ignores much more relevant factors.

Even so, the improvement in the rankings can still be greeted as a good thing. Dartmouth has been teetering on the cusp of the top ten institutions for years. Provost Folt would do well to keep in mind, though, that the tweaks to methods that bumped us back into the top ten could easily bump us right back out.

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