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College rankings, faculty, and prospective student

  1. Apr 1, 2010 #1
    What factors determine college rankings? Why would faculty and students want to attend lower ranked schools besides (perhaps) financial reasons?

    I don't understand how these rankings work and how do they relate to the quality of education one might obtain at higher/lower ranked schools. What puzzles me more is how do faculty and students at lower ranked universities feel about their lower ranked school and programs. Another thing I find interesting is how professors from prestigious universities decide to teach at less prestigious institutions. I would think many would either try to teach at the same level they came from or not teach at all and do something else.

    The whole thing confuses me. May I please obtain clarification on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2010 #2


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    College rankings done by the US News and World Report are pretty transparent. They have a formula based on average class size, student-to-faculty ratio, alumni giving rate, perceived prestige by other college presidents, etc. Not every student has the option of attending a top school, but you don't need to attend the top program in the country to become a teacher, or a nurse, or one of many other fields. Often the local state university is the best choice.

    As for faculty, it's very hard to get a job as a professor. Schools are producing more PhDs than they need to hire. Many students, even ones who did their PhD at a top school, are happy to take the offers they get. It's a standard rule of thumb that the faculty position you get would be at a school a step below the ranking of your graduate school (although of course that's not always the case).
  4. Apr 2, 2010 #3
    Why aren't you a billionaire? Why would anyone want to have less than a billion dollars?

    Serious answer: the top ranked schools are very, *very* selective. They don't let you in just because you want to go there, even if you have the money to pay for tuition.
  5. Apr 2, 2010 #4
    Everything is coming from the perspective of a math student and applies to math and other degrees close to it. I have no idea how much applies to other degrees.

    According to http://www.usnews.com/articles/educ...9/how-we-calculate-the-college-rankings.html" the U.S.News & World Report college rankings is based on weighted scores in the following categories:
    - Peer assessment (weighting: 25 percent)
    - Retention (20 percent in national universities and liberal arts colleges and 25 percent in master's and baccalaureate colleges)
    - Faculty resources (20 percent)
    - Student selectivity (15 percent)
    - Financial resources (10 percent)
    - Graduation rate performance (5 percent; only in national universities and liberal arts colleges)
    - Alumni giving rate (5 percent)
    See the article for more information. I expect most other rankings to have similar criteria and weights.
    The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings are based on:
    - Peer Review Score (40%)
    - Recruiter Review (10%)
    - International Faculty Score (5%)
    - International Students Score (5%)
    - Faculty/Student Score (20%)
    - Citations/Faculty Score (20%).

    - Geographical reasons (want to be close to/far from family or old friends, you may have a girlfriend/boyfriend, you may prefer warm climate, you may dislike the politics of some states, etc.)
    - Competitiveness. At some colleges there is fierce competition, at others there is practically none. At some the competition is friendly where you push each other to become better, at others it's hostile and people may try to give you wrong information prior to tests (I have heard anecdotes about this kind of stuff happening at some ivy league universities, but most is 6-hand information so not very reliable). You may shine when you're not under pressure and be able to motivate yourself, or you may not a constant pressure of professors assigning daily 15-page problem sets.
    - Academic/social focus. Would you like to party all the time, or study 18h/day? Or do you want some kind of middle ground?
    - Student body. Some colleges attract certain kinds of people. You may not want to attend X because you believe these are people who only care about grades and not about the subject matter.
    - Housing options. Do you want a roommate? Do you want the option of a large room? Do you want a large dorm with social activities? Do you want to cook yourself or be part of a meal plan? Do you want to live off-campus?
    - Opportunities. Sometimes some universities will have unique opportunities. Will you for instance be able to take graduate classes? Triple major? How much undergrad research goes on? Are there undergraduate seminars? Can you potentially switch majors? Can you take courses at other universities?

    In my opinion the major way they work is that students (or their parents) look at them to determine where they want to go (as high as possible on the list). Thus top 5 will admit straight-A students who may be quite intense academically. I believe the major reason you may want to be at a top university is not because of the university as such, but rather because that's where many other smart people go so you'll be together with a lot of smart people. A university is a brand. If everyone agreed that Pepperdine University (a 601+ rank US university that I haven't heard of. I just looked at the bottom of one of the rankings so no offence intended towards any students at Pepperdine) was the best, then it wouldn't take 10 years for it to qualify for top 20 ranking.

    The people at the university are what makes it good/bad.
    The reputation of a university is what attracts people.

    Fine. Why wouldn't they? In my experience people obsess about rankings when it comes to admission, but once they have been admitted most see things in a perspective and realize that rankings are close to useless.

    It's like you asking me how I feel about being short. Personally I don't really care as I don't see a problem.

    There is of course always the occasional student who wished they had been admitted to harvard (or somewhere else) and keep applying for transfer, talking about the place, and planning how to get there for graduate school. These people will not be able to take advantage of being in college, and they have a miserable time and end up with unimpressive results in the end. Embrace the opportunities you have.

    See: http://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/which-universities-should-one-apply-to/" [Broken] by Terry Tao (famous mathematician).

    At the undergraduate level everywhere is pretty much the same in terms of standard curriculum (with a few exceptions). At the graduate level however there is no real ranking and colleges differ a lot, but not in ways you can say a good or bad. Is it for instance bad to have a close connection with industry partners? Is it good to have a narrow or broad research focus? Instead of asking how a university is ranked you ask who work there and what they work on. You may be interested in algebraic K-theory, quantum groups or something else so you look at the leading researchers in those areas and find the universities they teach at. This may very well not be at Stanford, Harvard, Princeton or other top-ranked universities. At the undergraduate level the rankings have some relevance and definitely a lot of prestige, but at the graduate level everyone agrees that they are useless. No one cares where you got your PhD, but they care who your advisor was and what kind of research you have been doing and in what field. At this level you're largely evaluated by your accomplishments, not where you've been.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  6. Apr 2, 2010 #5
    I think this is one of the more significant advantages to going to a top-ranked college. It makes a big difference being in an intellectual atmosphere surrounded by smart and dedicated students.
  7. Apr 2, 2010 #6
    I agree. I go to a small not widely known university and I essentially have to wade through loads of people to find anyone I can have a stimulating conversation with. I've been lucky to find the half-dozen or so people I can have an intensive dialog with (not that I don't have friends and acquaintances that don't quite live up to what I would like, though I suppose it's their choice). It's simply the case that my institution lacks the general culture of discipline present at a top university, so finding someone who adheres to the culture of fairly rigorous intellectual discipline is relatively rare.
  8. Apr 2, 2010 #7
    Because they may be better schools for the faculty and student. If you learn best through classroom instruction and if you deal badly with large amounts of stress, for example, don't go to MIT, since the faculty there aren't particularly good at classroom instruction and the stress is huge.

    I think rankings are worse than useless. People learn in different ways, and you really need a school that fits your learning style.

    You take what you can get.

    Also a lot of people from prestigious schools *want* to teach at schools that are less prestigious because this gives them a chance to build a department. If you teach at Harvard, there is nothing that you can do to make things much better and your challenge is keep things from getting worse. If you teach at a school that no one has ever heard of, this gives you the chance to do something really new and different.

    This also means that there isn't a huge difference between the big name schools and the middle level schools, since most of their faculty come from the same pool of people. It also biases the rankings because if someone asks faculty what their favorite school is other than they one they are at, they are more apt than not to name their alma mater.
  9. Apr 2, 2010 #8
    Also note that these are general rankings and may have nothing to do with specific programs. University of Hawaii, University of Arizona, and University of Virginia aren't particularly unusual as far as state schools, but in astronomy these are superstars with professional reputations that match and in some areas exceed Harvard or MIT (hint, it's hard to put a big telescope in Cambridge).

    But conversely having a lot of smart students means that the school can get away with lousy teachers. There are some brilliant researchers at MIT that are just totally incompetent at lecturing, but it doesn't matter that much.

    Also, if you get in a room with lots of smart people, you may find yourself the dumbest person there, and you'll probably find yourself being "average." Being "average" or even "below average" is something that freshmen at big name schools have to deal with, and some really, really bad things can happen if your entire identity is based on academic achievement and you are having to wear the dunce cap for the first time in your life.

    For physics the curriculum is pretty standard but the environment can be very different. Personally, I got some sort of weird thrill getting three hours of sleep every night and doing thinking about physics most of the rest of the time, and then totally crashing on the weekends, but that's not the best learning environment for everyone.
  10. Apr 2, 2010 #9
    You will only find these kind of people in very specific programs, mostly in the sciences and maybe in some humanities (read: the less lucrative fields). Even at a top school, engineering students, for example, don't give give too much of a hoot about the material they're learning: they care much more about riding on their school's reputation upon graduation to get high-paying jobs.

    Don't forget a lot of these people have trained to get into these schools, it's very likely they care about the reputation more than anything else.
  11. Apr 3, 2010 #10
    Thanks for the explanations. I began reading more into rankings and wondered how people attending those universities felt, especially the faculty. I thought that rankings were mainly a reflection on the attitude of professors and students towards learning or the quality of education given by those institutions.

    I also found some articles about how some universities manipulate stats to increase their rankings (like decreasing class sizes for the fall and increasing again for the spring). After reading those articles, I'm more concerned with going to a place where I'll fit in.
  12. Apr 3, 2010 #11
    I personally am not convinced the rankings are meaningless like some people propose. Having been an undergraduate at both an ordinary public state school and a top private university, I can say that my experience at the top school has undoubtedly been much more rigorous and academically fulfilling; not to mention I'm surrounded by a lot more dedicated students. The entirety of my current university essentially operates on a level higher than the very small honors college of my old school.

    That said, fit is absolutely more important than anything like ranking. But I feel that I should point out that the top 20 schools in general are very varied. You have the extreme focus on science and mathematics of Caltech, the academic liberalism of Brown, the large student body of Cornell, the beautiful sprawling campus of Stanford, the residential colleges of Rice, the "big city feel" of Columbia, etc.
  13. Apr 3, 2010 #12
    I wouldn't say the ranks are meaningless but I am beginning to feel those rankings do not paint a decently accurate picture. Harvard is #1 and Princeton is #2; what does that tell me about the quality of the school, the student body, faculty, etc. Does a Harvard graduate have greater success than a Princeton graduate?

    I feel the rankings are a self-fulfilling prophecy where bright students hear Harvard #1 and many of the flock to Harvard without considering whether or not they fit there (and then again, like Werg22 mentioned, many of them train to enter these institutions so the chances of finding people with exact core values is great); same thing goes for employers when hiring Harvard graduates because they perceive Harvard graduates bring greater value (and more than likely they do thanks to the self-fulfilling prophecy).

    Now, I think institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia do deserve to be at the top. It gets fuzzy in the middle; how do you properly rank a school in Michigan against one in Florida?
  14. Apr 3, 2010 #13
    Oh, yes, I agree that putting one school at #1 and another at #2 is meaningless. I mean that the schools that are consistently at the top of the list (say the top 20) do seem to be in general better, or at least they seem to have some outstanding qualities that most schools may lack.
  15. Apr 3, 2010 #14
    Well, the top institutions in the US were established over a century ago and have mostly catered to a very specific demographic throughout their history (the wealthy elite). They generally select who can enter them while public institutions are usually mandated to accept almost all incoming students (of course, I'm sure they have real control over who finally enters). It's similar to Ferrari marketing itself as a brand for wealthy people and delivering on that promise as opposed to Toyota marketing itself as the brand for everyone and trying to cater to everyone's needs.

    My issue is not necessarily with the top ones but the middle ones. How does one properly measure University of Florida against Stony Brook University, for example.
  16. Apr 3, 2010 #15
    That's generally true, but not universally. (For instance, Rice is just now a century old and was originally free! Granted Rice is not at the level of Harvard, Yale, etc., but it's still in the top 20.)

    I see now what your point is and agree. I think the rankings present meaningful decompositions of the pool of universities into large groups (say the top schools, the middle ones, and the low ones--or something like that), but they approach meaninglessness the more one tries to use them to compare two universities falling in the same broad group.
  17. Apr 4, 2010 #16
    Having been an undergraduate at MIT and a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I don't think that the quality of the students or of the faculty in physics and astronomy is that much different. I do think that MIT does teach physics better than the physics department at UT Austin because MIT physics tends to go less into the weed out philosophy, but the UT astronomy department seems to be less into "weed out" than the physics department.

    The academic level *overall* at MIT is higher than at UTexas Austin, but the academic level for physics/engineering/astronomy students is about the same.

    I really don't think that you can classify things into "top schools" and "public schools." You need to specify *which* top schools and public schools. I "fit in" very much at MIT, but I think I would have totally hated Harvard or Princeton.
  18. Apr 4, 2010 #17
    That reminds me of the time my philosophy advisor asked me why engineers were always her best students. I think there's definitely some self-selection. Not that all the good students choose physics or engineering, but the ones who don't want to work generally stay away. That, and the technical curriculum is much more easily standardized for engineering and physics etc.
  19. Apr 4, 2010 #18
    Employers don't hire Harvard graduates because they think that Harvard graduates have higher value.

    An employer doesn't really care about hiring smart people. Your employer is more interested in avoiding stupid people, and if you hire 50 Harvard graduates they might not be smarter than people on the average, but there is a good chance that you will avoid hiring anyone that is totally incompetent.

    What happens is that it costs time and money for an employer to do campus recruitment, so they are going to minimize costs by focusing on campuses where they can get people without spending large amounts of money. It also helps that people in the big name schools go and try to market their schools to employers.

    It also helps that once you have people that have gone to certain school go into business they can tell other people in that school some of the "hidden secrets" on how to get a job. Personally, I hate this, and a lot of the reason I post a lot on these forums is to "level the playing field." The stuff that I'm telling you is some of the stuff that you learn if you go to a big name school.

    The problem here is that most people who haven't been employed are using the "academic" model in which you pass tests and if you get high scores you get rewarded. This just *isn't* the way that business works.

    The only advantage in which think I really have in going to a top school, is that I can credibly talk about why going to a top school isn't all that important. If I had gone to University of Florida, I really don't think my life would have turned out that much different, however, I'd be wondering what would have happened if I had gone to MIT.

    MIT is weird because the institutional culture *hates* schools ranking, and a lot of that has do with MIT's weird relationship with Harvard.
  20. Apr 4, 2010 #19
    I really don't think that they do that well. There is a fun Simpsons episode in which Lisa Simpson starts going crazy because the school is on strike, and there is no one to rank her, and so Marge finally tapes a big letter A to her forehead which makes Lisa feel a lot better.

    The reason people are obsessed with rankings is that since kindergarten, people on the list have been in situations where they have been ranked, judged, scored, and so your typical high schools student thinks that this is the way the whole world works when it isn't. Once you get out of high school, you quickly find that you'll do better in the world if you act like Bart Simpson rather than Lisa Simpson.
  21. Apr 4, 2010 #20
    Harvard tries very actively to mold you into a Harvard student, and one thing that Harvard does do is to build up your ego. One big advantage of going to Harvard is that you become arrogant, and a little arrogance is not always a bad thing.

    If someone from Harvard gets rejected for a job, there is this little voice inside of them that says "that interviewer was an IDIOT, I went to *HARVARD* how dare that interviewer reject *ME*" and so they'll just keep interviewing until they get something. If you go to a state school, there's a good chance that if someone rejects you, you'll just give up.

    Personally, I think that these rankings are stupid because they set up social hierarchies in which who you know becomes more important than what you know, so I do whatever I can to blow them up. It's really weird since one reason I think that MIT is a "top ranked school" is that MIT hates being a top ranked school. Harvard and Princeton aren't that way, but I think that Columbia is.

    Also one case study is NYU, which at some point in the 1980's decided that it wanted to be a top ranked school and has succeeded to a large extent.
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