ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—The Obama administration is backing down on its effort to rank colleges and universities. It sounded like a good idea, but the administration quickly discovered that what sounds good at first, is often quite difficult to turn into a real plan.
Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary of education, was the administration official left to explain this policy retreat to the public. He said efforts to combine many measurements of a school into one score became exceptionally complicated. The administration also wanted to avoid “a black box that would be hard for consumers to penetrate and understand and that actually would not be an advance on the state of the art.” He explained further that the supposed simplicity of a single score “would belie a lot of complexity students and families need to understand. And it would mask some very big differences among institutions.”
Mitchell is right. As a historian, what do I care about the status of the business school. There a lot of other factors. Do students interested in Harvard or Yale really care much about graduation rates for transfer students at those institutions—which probably are very few? Mitchell probably knew that this effort was a foolish one. He is a former president of Occidental College. It has a strong tradition in the liberal arts, but it is not a place you would go to an engineering degree.
Why then, did this blog like idea of ranking history departments in the Clauset, Arbesman, Larremore article, “Systematic Inequality”? The short answer is that article had a specific criteria—the employment of history Ph.D.s at other Ph.D. granting institutions. Even then it had some serious flaws. Strong departments in European history, might not be the right place for an Americanist.
There are some big problems in academia, and some real strenghts. The main driving force behind the Obama initiative was a good one—to make the system more transparent. Maybe they should have focused on that—standardizing reporting—instead of trying to create a lot more work for a bureaucracy, or to help with the real issues in higher education.