Schools That Don’t Want To Be Graded

Imagine a college student sent you this job application:

My academic performance is too complex to be summarized by a grade.  So even though I was given grades in college, I am not going to show you those grades.  Yes, I could have gone to another school, but honestly I don’t think any school’s grades could do me justice.  I have saved all of my schoolwork for you to examine, and instead of judging me on my grades, I think you should study my schoolwork and interview me in depth to truly appreciate all I have to offer. 

I doubt this pitch would go over very well.  But amazingly a number of colleges are now making a similar pitch to their students.   A recent Washington Post OpEd, "A College Can’t Be Reduced To a Number in a Magazine," elaborates:

A majority of the 80 college presidents … expressed their intention not to participate in U.S. News & World Report‘s annual college ranking survey. … These academic leaders … believe the choice about which college or university to attend is vital — and too important to leave to an inherently flawed rankings methodology. …
The Annapolis Group has agreed to work with other higher-education organizations to develop a Web-based resource that will present accessible, comprehensive and quantifiable data to help guide students as they select a college. The information will include important data such as average class size and majors, as well as some reporting of student-learning measures.  We have no intention, however, to produce a ranking of our institutions. … Myriad complex variables can’t be reduced to a single number.
We urge students to compare schools on a variety of factors …. They should visit campuses and go on what feels like a good match rather than relying on filtered or secondhand information. We must encourage students to look inside their hearts and trust their instincts when it comes to choosing a college, not whether parents or friends think a university is cool or prestigious.

Oddly enough, most of these schools will insist on scoring their students with a GPA, reducing their myriad complex performances to a single number. 

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  • St. John’s Alumnus

    Without a GPA how would alums the above schools get into graduate schools? Personal evaluations?

  • Sol

    I believe my wife’s alma mater, The College of Wooster, is one of those coming out against the rankings. As I understand it, their main complaint is that the process favors schools which are selective in who they let in and graduate most of those who are admitted. Wooster’s philosophy is to be generous in whom they accept, but stingy with the diplomas, which “artificially” depresses their rankings.

    Personally, I can see both sides of that philosophy — on the one hand, it’s cool to give everyone a chance; on the other hand, you can argue they’re just taking the weaker students’ money for a couple of years and then flunking them out. But if you’re one of the better students, it’s hard to see why that should make any difference to you either way, so it sucks that the rankings penalize Wooster for it.

  • Norman Siebrasse

    Refusing to be ranked normally means that you have something to hide. This is not always true — you may legitimately object to the ranking method, as per Sol’s example. But it is true often enough that I think people will normally infer that if you refuse to be ranked it is because you are inferior. (It is interesting that the schools in question refuse to combine their own analysis into a single number, which is an obvious strategy if they really objected to the ranking method itself, rather than to the fact of being ranked.) Because of this, I doubt that the schools that refuse to be ranked will benefit from their strategy.

  • Robin,

    I think the point is: why should U.S. News and World Report be in charge of this. Their criteria have some well-known problems, and if a college does not think the U.S. News criteria summarize them well, why should the college play that game?

    St. Johns,

    When we admit students into our graduate programs, we look at grades in individual courses. GPA itself doesn’t really come into play at all.

  • My graduate school is one of the top-ranked in the country for a program that it does not have. Somehow, the non-existence of the program was not factored into the ratings.

    The Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan was unhappy with the US News ranking of law schools, so it developed its own. Under that system, the Thomas Cooley Law School is a top-tier law school. This alternative rating system does not seem to have caught on nationally.

    Any ratings system will reward certain activities. To the extent that these activities are something other than what the universities should be doing, it will distort behavior and provide an inaccurate measure. This site has had discussions of how grading students distorts the learning process.

    We know that the US News rankings are biased in certain ways. What implies that a measure with a known bias is worse than no measure at all? I can see a problem if the bias is known to administrators but not students, but that seems like the sort of problem that can be overcome.

  • Ali Hasanain

    I think the schools would argue that US News has an economic interest in revising the rankings significantly each year, and thus is likely to do so in capricious ways. GPAs on the other hand, are not subject to such yearly fluctuation and can therefore be better trusted.

  • Dagon

    There’s a key difference between the college rankings and student grades. Students have a very wide choice of colleges, with various grading systems to choose from. Colleges don’t currently have this choice.

    Students also only get to go to one college (in most cases). Colleges could appear in multiple ranking lists simultaneously.

    One possibility is, rather than just trying to opt out of the ranking in useless news and world distort, for colleges to encourage other publications to publish rankings with criteria they prefer.

    There’s also a difference in importance – grades don’t matter much after a few years in most careers.

  • Chi

    At the very least, GPA can be used legitimately by graduate schools and large employers (like Microsoft, Google, who may have occasion to discriminate) to sift through students with the same major. Surely there are degrees of appropriateness for comparing students via a single number: class, department, major, university, peer Universities.

    Hiding scores because of graduation rate *is* a significant thing, thank you very much. There are real students who break down or give up in college, and it is a useful bit of information to know how many of them there are. Otoh, I don’t see the meaning in flunking a kid that was admitted rightfully, and who hasn’t slacked off. The US has been more accomodating than Cambridge-style “sent down the river”. Setting aside the money reason, I have to think this is the better way.

  • TGGP

    When I first saw the title about the post I thought it would be about standardized testing, No Child Left Behind and so on. Of course, that attitude to such tests is not surprising given the scores of those that go into Education.

  • Nick Tarleton

    It sounds like everyone is still assuming that a one-dimensional ranking of colleges is valid and productive. It’s not. Different students do best in completely different environments, and treating a one-dimensional ranking as extremely important (rather than one, relatively small, input into the decision) causes applicants to become obsessed with getting into the supposedly objective #1 rather than taking the extra effort to find out where they would do best. (You do know how insanely irrational – especially susceptible to the bandwagon effect – teenagers are, right? I saw this myself while applying to college the past year.)

    A student selecting a college and a company selecting employees are very different situations. A poor selection has a much larger impact on a student (have to try – and likely fail – to transfer after an unpleasant year) than on a company (replace the employee, incur a small cost). The student only decides once while the company hires many people, which both amplifies the importance of the decision to the student and means the student can invest much more effort in making the decision than the company can in each employee.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    A personal belief of mine and an area of entrepreneurial interest is on the theory that a lot more things should be graded than currently are. How does one find the best private CFA licensing exam tutor in Manhattan? The best personal trainer in South Beach? The best seduction coach in Los Angeles? National magazines rank educational programs, and regional magazines often rank and rate best doctors and lawyers, but beyond that, it’s still a wilderness. Perhaps social networking software will fill the void, but I think there’s still huge opportunities in this area.

    Anyone interested in collaborating with me can email me at

  • billswift

    Nick, that’s why there are many ranking systems in use which use different criteria. Look for the ranking which best fits what you want in a college.

  • Anon

    The US News ranking system is flawed. This might be a good way to protest it, if those colleges can band together and list what they want changed (or want in a new ranking system).

    The best result would be to provide a number of separate metrics or rankings within groups of schools (public/private, small/large, etc.) instead of a single scale. Then as a college student, I could look at the factors most interesting to me.

    I graduated from a school that was small enough to get individual teacher attention yet with affordable tuition because student aid wouldn’t cover the gap between what my parents could afford and what the Univ of California cost. I’ve later spent some time on the UC campus and am happy with the choice I made for undergrad, even though it might not have been a good idea based on the US News ranking alone.

  • I would like to know how influential the rankings are for kids picking colleges, scholars picking graduate schools, and faculty looking for work. I bet they are more important for alums. At any rate, I don’t see a point in whining over rankings. They are zero-sum. Got a bad ranking? Just admit it up front and say “but let me show you what’s great about this school.”

    I spent my college years at UC Irvine, just as it was beginning to develop into the juggernaut it most unmistakenly is now. In the words of George W. Bush “Go Anteaters…. Fight… Anteater”. It most certainly wasn’t rankings that attracted me in 1988. I had acceptances from a number of schools that would have looked great on the old resume. But UCI went the extra mile to get me to go there. I swear, if we’d had cell phones and pagers in 1988, it would have been worse than having Pete Carroll and Les Miles fight over a letter of intent.