What makes a university “the best” university in the country? Oftentimes students trying to decide where to go for college go straight to U. S. News and World Report’s list of best universities without questioning the methods USNWR uses to rank universities. Interestingly, USNWR releases not just one list, but many: Best Liberal Arts Colleges, Best Public Universities, Best Universities by Region, Best Engineering Schools, Best Business Schools, and even… Best Undergraduate Teaching?
Surely your future professors’ teaching abilities should be an important factor in determining where you go to college. Surely this list is mostly the same as the list of top universities. Well, actually yes and no. Compare USNWR’s top ten schools with USNWR’s top ten best schools for undergraduate teaching:
|Rank||Best National Universities||Best Undergraduate Teaching|
|3||Yale||College of William and Mary|
|4||Columbia||Miami University – Oxford|
|5||Stanford, University of Chicago||Yale|
|6||—||University of Maryland, Baltimore County|
|7||Duke, MIT, University of Pennsylvania||Duke|
|8||—||University of California, Berkley|
|10||California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth||Stanford|
Five of them are the same, but five of them are not. Notably, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, MIT, UPenn, and Caltech are absent from the best undergrad teaching list. Interestingly, in the best national universities list, Brown comes in 14th, Berkley 20th, William and Mary 32nd, Miami 75th, and University of Maryland all the way at 158th. How can a university go from being 158th best to being 6th best?
It all comes down to how they calculate the rankings. The list of best national universities is created using a complicated formula that gives weight to things like the high school class ranks of admitted students, SAT scores of admitted students, reputation among academics, financial resources, acceptance rate, graduation rate, etc. If you want the details, USNWR offers a six page explanation here. Interestingly, the quality of undergraduate teaching is not factored into the creation of this list. Apparently it’s not that important.
But now that we’re on the subject, how did they measure the quality of undergraduate teaching? Did they sit in on some classes to see if the professors were crazy or not? No, of course not! The best teaching list was calculated based on surveys given to university administrators. Apparently, the administrators were asked to nominate and rank schools they felt had an unusual “commitment to undergraduate teaching.” You can find a full explanation here.
Compare USNWR’s list to the list compiled by ratemyprofessors.com:
|Rank||USNWR: Best National Universities||USNWR: Best Undergraduate Teaching||Rate My Professors: Best Universities|
|3||Yale||College of William and Mary||Pennsylvania State University|
|4||Columbia||Miami University – Oxford||Stanford|
|5||Stanford, University of Chicago||Yale||University of Wisconsin – Madison|
|6||—||University of Maryland, Baltimore County||University of Georgia|
|7||Duke, MIT, University of Pennsylvania||Duke||Washington University in St. Louis|
|8||—||University of California, Berkley||Rollins College|
|9||—||Brown||Texas A&M – College Station|
|10||California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth||Stanford||University of Michigan|
There are only two universities that made it onto all three lists: Duke and Stanford. Perhaps that means something; then again, given the inconsistency, perhaps it doesn’t. How did Rate My Professors create their list? By combining students’ ratings of professors with students’ ratings of their happiness at their universities. This might sound more reasonable, except that it obviously favors easier classes and grade inflation, since students are more likely to rate a professor highly if they make an A easily than if they have to struggle just to pass. After all, is the best university the one that makes you feel the best or the one that teaches you the most? For a more detailed explanation of how Rate My Professors created their list, see here.
So, what’s a beleaguered college bound student to do? These lists can be helpful as a starting place in terms of getting ideas, but the best way to find out if a college has good teachers is to visit. When you actually visit a college, you can talk with students who are majoring in fields that interest you and ask them about their experiences. Oftentimes, you can even meet with the professors themselves or even sit in on a class or two. The moral of the story is that there’s no substitute for first hand experience, and that you should take lists of college rankings with a grain of salt. Always remember to think for yourself, and best of luck!