The Erosive Simplicity of College Rankings: Meet America’s ‘Worst College’

Shimer may be unlike any college you’ve ever heard of. Its students read a canon of original source texts based on the Great Books of western thought. They make sense of them through mostly self-led discussions facilitated by the lectureless questioning by professors.

The place is self-governed by an assembly of all students and other stakeholders. In the increasingly productized world of higher education, professors at Shimer joke that it is somewhere between reality and utopia.

This week, Shimer, my alma mater, was named ‘worst college in America’.

Though it is perennially among the smallest colleges in the US, Shimer punches intellectually above its class. And though it is a small school, there are clearly those who love it. The President of fellow “Great Books” school St. Johns blogged in its defense. MIT Press’s The Baffler – an intellectual review set on blunting the cutting edge of culture, named the ranking among its daily bafflements. Even Neilhimself Gaiman tweeted-in on the matter.

This created an interesting moment – to look at the relevance of this and perhaps other such rankings. And to consider if the bland conformity which typifies the flabby middle of American higher education is in fact enforced by ranking systems that reward exactly that. And more generally, if there is the first iota of consensus around what defines a great or terrible college, which rankings wrap-up as a cut and dried matter.

Does learning really matter in college rankings?
While colleges are typically accredited and recognized by the states in which they operate, that’s not true of college rankings. They’re mostly created by publishers as a way to aggregate the attention prospective students. They work powerfully. There’s something in our human minds that responds to hierarchy and judgment so powerfully as to seek recognition even from the most bogus and capricious of scales.

In this case, the method arrived at by the author and Washington Magazine, was one that tried to determine the quality education without any direct measure of teaching or learning. The ranking were primarily based on graduation rate, cost, and loan default rates to find the worst colleges. Even though none of these directly measure teaching, learning, long term gain, or student satisfaction, let’s see what meaning can be drawn.

What does a low graduation rate prove?
Some programs, like Special Forces training, pride themselves on a low completion rate. Diploma mills have an unusually high completion rate. Though graduation rate can be calculated precisely, it’s hard to say they mean anything universally.

Consider that Shimer is one of the rare colleges that admit highly qualified high school students early, years before they would graduate high school. After completing their first year at Shimer, they receive a high school diploma, which presents an attractive opportunity to transfer. Some stay, some leave, neither state denotes failure. Most colleges don’t do that. Is that what made them worst?

Can any college beat a MOOC in being “less bad”?
Likewise, high prices and even a high student loan default rate have little to say about teaching or learning. Last week I completed a MOOC (a huge free online course) in which 80,000 students listened to the recorded pronouncements of a renowned instructor. The MOOC was free, its default rate zero, and grades were based on student self-assessment. It would have scored 100% on the quality measures this study was based on.

With an average of eight students per class, Shimer’s fixed costs for talented engaged faculty are almost certainly higher than my MOOC. Such simple measures would lionize the “learning-lite” of my MOOC, and discount the penetrating discussion of the greatest art and intellectual works of human kind.

Integrative thinking and the half-life of knowledge
By focusing on what is easy to measure as the currency of real worth, there’s a risk that we may get exactly that – and only that. This is exactly the opposite of the integrative thinking which emerges from hard to measure fields such as the liberal arts, design programs and schools for the arts.

Since the financial meltdown, college has come to be viewed as vocational schooling. It is supposed to train you for a job and a career. That’s all well and good if you entering a field where knowledge and practices are set and unlikely to evolve dramatically. But I know few fields that are that way. Rather, vocational training has a half-life which now seems dangerously short, especially in inventive, high-growth industries.

Philosophers grow to be unicorns
A friend of mine who used to be an editor at a large newspaper told me this story. “I get a lot of calls and emails from the kids of friends who are about to go to college and want to become journalists. They all want to know what they should study. I tell them all the same thing: DON’T GET A DEGREE IN JOURNALISM. I can teach anyone the basics of journalism in about two weeks, what I can’t do is teach them to be a critical thinker. Any liberal arts degree can do that.”

Executives are constantly bemoaning how hard it is to find people who can write and think critically – the two skills generally go together. And it’s easy to dig reading The Canterbury Tales in favor of a skill-based certificate in a promising field such as Search Engine Optimization. How many times have you heard someone say to a college kid, “So what are you going to do with a degree in English/Philosophy/Art History, etc.?” But increasingly firms I know want what some recruiters called “unicorns”, people with both wide knowledge and abilities combined with deep knowledge and the ability to integrate them.

These unicorns see the world in a unique ways and make connections between things that few other people will ever even consider. And they collaborate and act on new ideas, sometimes idealistically. If you’re in marketing and looking for someone who really understands how language works get a classics major who knows Latin and Ancient Greek. They get it differently and more deeply than someone with a straight-up communications degree. Find someone who has read Euclid and tested his proofs, and run headlong in to the wall of comprehensive tests and thesis writing which is life in a rigorous program.

The quirky culture of Shimer, and other daring school foster: true, independent thought, driven by an appetite to understand and make things that are as complex and difficult while striving for elegance. Studying design at RISD in my later life wasn’t that different from Shimer, the excitement, exhaustion and self-reliance were similar. It’s a place where people challenge each other, and make things that can take maniacal commitment, which is where mad skills come from.

The Method to Shimer’s Madness
“They offer only one core program, and just one teaching method,” says an article about Shimer in The Guardian. “This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.”

There are no textbooks; no easy, pre-digested summations which sound authoritative but in fact are anything but. Original thought is a requirement not a hoped-for byproduct. Shimer students aren’t like those anywhere else (except maybe St. John’s College – not the basketball school – another great books school).

Shimer students are often not the obvious straight A’s, president of the student council, volunteered at a homeless shelter or teaching people to read, kinds of students. There’s nothing wrong with that type of student, of course. It’s just that not all really smart people look alike, or seek to remain that way for long. Many of them wander off down strange, interesting paths which others, focused on making sure they get into that Name Brand school, frequently miss.

The Erosive Simplicity of College Rankings
We live in a time and culture that craves simplification, and in our hurried lives simplicity is the good manners of our age. But I often see simplicity muting the truly complex, trading the deep and difficult thought needed for understanding, for easy but flawed conceptualization.

That’s why Shimer is by far the best worst college in America. It’s the kind of place that’s hard to measure, even when you’re there. Washington Monthly’s rankings deserve to be denounced not because they got one wrong, errors happen, and measuring learning is hard.

Washington Monthly should be called-out for judging something of real importance, with an approach so simplistic that it shows less regard than some of those who they judge as lacking. That’s what a “worst” list is, judgment. And you can grant or deny their validity as a arbiter, you get to judge now.

You can vote: Is Shimer the worst college in America?
It’s really up to you, as much as any magazine. Does Shimer belong among the worst colleges in America? Or, do rankings that don’t consider the diversity of programs, teachers and learners suck the oxygen out of what should be more nuanced and specific conversations? Is being outside that box a virtue?

You can tell me and others what you think here in this post’s comments. That would be great, but it wouldn’t be a real vote. If you want to encourage Shimer’s behavior, go visit the school’s website which has a giving page – and make a gift. That’s your vote. Call it “unplanned” giving. What could say more than the slap of such rankings followed by the surprise of unplanned giving?  (Or give Shimer a thumbs-up in the comments below.)

1 Response to "The Erosive Simplicity of College Rankings: Meet America’s ‘Worst College’"

  • David Shiner

    February 19, 2015

    Great article, Dave. You’ve done your alma mater proud.

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