Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How the US News Undergrad Rankings Mislead Students

An undergraduate philosophy major considering PhD programs in philosophy wrote to me wondering about the overall quality of the universities he was considering.  He remarked:

[A] cursory glance [at various sources] suggests that UCLA might be better than Notre Dame. I found this surprising since if you check the US News undergraduate/overall rankings, Notre Dame is significantly higher than UCLA (and Berkeley!).

CollegeProwler.com, which I also discovered recently, rates Notre Dame's "Academics" as somewhat higher than UCLA's, although their criteria are bizarre.

It is likely that along several relevant dimensions of undergraduate education (contact with faculty, student selectivity, etc.), Notre Dame is better than UCLA.  But PhD students in philosophy, like law students, are graduate students, and here it is important to bear in mind how deeply unhinged from the quality of research universities the U.S. News rankings are.  By any sensible measure--whether THES or the 1995 National Research Council report or even U.S. News surveys of academics when rating PhD programs--UCLA is at worst one of the top 20 universities (public or private) in the country, and perhaps one of the top 10.  Notre Dame isn't in the top 50. 

This prospective PhD student, of course, was educating himself about the actual academic quality of the universities he was considering.  In my experience, it is prospective law students who are more often misled.  Do follow some of the links above, which will tell you quite a bit more about the quality of graduate education outside law at the various schools you may be considering.  Some very good law schools (e.g., Georgetown, Vanderbilt) are at relatively weak universities, at least compared to other universities with comparable law schools.


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