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Common Purposes

What are the Common Purposes? I've dwelt on that question since first reading my alma mater's founding principle "for the purposes of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life". The question, more than any answer I may ever offer, has guided me through many personal and professional endeavors. And, if I have learned anything it is that I have derived my greatest joy when I, as part of a team, have made a lasting difference to improve the lives of others. Should the thoughts I share here and the ensuing discussion lead others to ask the same question, to seek their own answers and to experience the same joy as I, then I shall consider this effort of value.

Image: "The New Shoes" by Jane Bucci. This work is based on the touching photo snapped by Gerald Waller in 1946, in Austria. The little boy, who lived in an orphanage, had just been given new shoes by the American Red Cross.

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4 comments

Be True to your School (Ranking)

Posted May 09, 2013 11:44 AM by MillMatt

Forbes Magazine joined the fray a few years ago in ranking America's Colleges and recently issued their 2012 results. US News & World Report (USN&WR) has offered such rankings for many years as they proved of interest to college-bound students (and their parents, most likely). Over time, colleges started to take note of their ranking and, as has been observed, many colleges started to focus on the metrics (possibly to the detriment of their primary focus) to improve their standing. Could millions of dollars in funding and alumni donations be at stake? Could the quality of applications change based upon a school's ranking? Perhaps.

Forbes relies on the work of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) to prepare their ranking. CCAP shares reports publicly that cover a range of interesting topics centered on American Colleges and I gather they take their work very seriously and earnestly. With regard to the ranking they prepare for Forbes, they provide a fairly detailed summary of their criteria, their sources and their methodology. And, they provide a summary ranking for each of the criteria by school.

CCAP uses five general categories:

1. Student Satisfaction - Student evaluations, retention rates (27.5%)

2. Post-Graduate Success - Who's Who, American Leaders and Salaries (32.5%)

3. Student Debt - Debt loads, default rates, debt percentage (17.5%)

4. Four-year Graduation Rate - four year graduation rate (11.25%)

5. Academic Success - student awards and alumni with PhD's (11.25%)

Remember that Forbes' tagline is "The Capitalist Tool" so they have a focus on capitalism and, in general, have a penchant for monetary returns and professional acumen as a measure for success. So, it is not surprising that they weight salaries, graduation rates, and academic achievement highly. Curiously, however, the measure with the highest weight (at 17.5%) is Student Evaluations from RateMyProfessor.com (RMP). Now, the good folks at CCAP have done their homework on assessing the validity of the RMP data and they have done their own analyses (as well as corroborating work by others) to qualify the value of these data. I have read a reasonable number of blog posts that question the CCAP data but I'll not quibble with the detractors for now. But, why is it that a subjective measure from students (the most confounding of all consumers as the less you give them the happier they are!) on a populist website would have the highest individual value in the overall ranking? Do Barron's or Fiske include such a measure?

CCAP generates a score for each element of the five categories and in some fashion (which is a mystery to me) generates a total score. As stated above, they do weight the value of the scores but it's not clear to me if (or how) they normalize or scale the scores such that they can be meaningfully combined. I do know that in the tabular summary for each category, CCAP provides information for each school by its rank order. Is the total score based upon a school's rank within each sub-category? I hope not! But, I can't say it's obvious to me how the final score is determined.

I wrote to CCAP (they provide an address on their website) seeking more information on the actual scores for each school. I received a timely reply that stated, "Unfortunately, we are contractually obligated not to make the raw RMP scores publicly available." Fair enough; if Forbes paid for this work to be done, they can do with it as they wish. But, I do not believe it's a good idea to keep the data private for the schools, their professors, students and alumni, for Forbes or for CCAP.

Here's a simple anecdote of explanation: I ran into a similar situation reviewing wages for teachers in several districts where I live. One local union was upset that their wages were ranked among some of the lowest in the county while all measures of success (test scores, enrollment and much more) were ranked at or near the top. It is not difficult to see why such a situation could turn into a major issue with placards and protests! Alas, pay rates are not a complete measure of compensation (medical benefits, retirement, days worked, etc.) and even if they were, the variations in pay rates were not egregiously different. Sure, if I'm making $500 less than someone else doing the same job, I do care and I would want the situation rectified; I do get that point. But, for union leaders to fan the flames with incomplete statements about pay scale rankings does more harm than good.

So, I ask CCAP, again: What are the actual scores, particularly the RMP scores, for these colleges? How significantly do these scores vary by category? Are the top ranked colleges really that much better than those at the bottom by your quantitative measures? It simply is not sufficient for a magazine of Forbes' stature and readership or for CCAP to present information in a manner that cannot be substantiated.

Bottom Line: Their results are of interest. For now, however, they are doing more harm than good.

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#1

Re: Be True to your School (Ranking)

05/09/2013 3:36 PM

When I got out of highschool I went to NDSCS, North Dakota State College of Science, for an Industrial Maintenance Technician degree. Even before graduating it was already getting me interests in future employment and has been a solid provider for getting jobs ever since and that is going on 20 years now!

However that said I also sent back to college about 10 years ago for Electrical Engineering at NDSU, North Dakota State University, and to be honest that degree has proven its not worth the paper its printed on. Four times the money spent twice the time invested and zero return for the output.

Heck to be honest after having been through some of their supposed engineering related classes I sort of felt dumber for having stayed with them. There were things that professors with full doctorates degrees were working with spending piles of money researching and having trouble making work that I had passed off as whimsical self amusement hobby work for myself years ago. Instead of asking me how I made my version of the said devices work I got grilled on whose classes I took to learn it and ignored when I said I taught myself and worked it out from there.

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Be True to your School (Ranking)

05/10/2013 12:21 AM

Usually Uni level researchers aren't actually building a machine they're investigating some subtle element of the machine.

Say it's a small helicopter, they may be working on more computationally efficient methods of solving a special class of control problems, but to the outsider it's just a small helicopter of the sort they could buy at a local electrical store.

They'll say "It already works fine, why do we need to improve it" then five years later a slightly cheaper, slightly more stable control algorithm appears on the market and is included into all subsequent auto helicopters.

The thing about research is that we don't know where it leads, just that in the long run it pays off.

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#3

Re: Be True to your School (Ranking)

05/10/2013 2:38 PM

Graduate Success = (0.95 * Student Motivation) + (0.05 * School Quality/Ranking)

I'll take a bright, motivated student from (any ABET accredited EE school) over a prima donna from an 'elite university' any day, hands down.

The ONLY people who care about school rankings are the admissions (sales) officers.

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#4

Re: Be True to your School (Ranking)

05/15/2013 1:00 PM

Professors are education "coaches" -- they help YOU become educated and knowledgable. And, just like athletic coaches, they do not -- and can not -- do the work or demonstrate the knowledge for you...that's what you have to do!

They teach YOU how to USE the tools of education & knowledge; how well you ultimately USE those tools & knowledge is totally up to you.

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