I'm writing this blog in April of 2012. This year's NCAA Basketball Tournament is over; people are starting to recall that collegiate athletic programs have colleges and universities affiliated with them, and references to college ranking, for a while, have an academic reference and some academic meaning.
Some academic meaning, but only some.
An academic administrator responded to the first rankings of graduate programs with the quotation, "A compendium of gossip is still gossip"; and a colleague of mine grumbled even earlier that such rankings reflect "all the intellectual respectability of a school-yard pecker contest."
(To be gender-inclusive, we should make that "all the intellectual respectability of a pecker or tit contest." [A female colleague granted that boys lead in stupidity and immaturity but insisted that girls out-do boys in the subtler forms of cruelty. But I digress.])
For US college rankings, most people go to US News and World Report, which seems to be doing nothing nowadays other than rank colleges. More cosmopolitan folk might go to the Academic Ranking of World Universities out of the Shanghai Jiaotong University, usually just called "the Shanghai ranking" or ARWU.
I tend to like the ARWU since my degrees are from schools — Cornell at Ithaca and Illinois at Urbana — that usually do well there; however I worked thirty-five years at Miami University in Oxford, OH, and if Miami has ever made the Shanghai top 500, I've missed it.
Where universities rank depends on what you measure, and with different measures, you can get very different ranks.
Part of what's measured — always — is reputation, and (relevant) reputation is a serious matter.
Check out the wording on the nearest college diploma. At most it's going to certify that the holder thereof satisfied in full the requirements for the degree of Whatever in Whatever and is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and honors pertaining thereto: primarily a chance at a decent job.
Trust me on this — I was in the Ed Biz for forty years — that's all we certify; colleges don't warranty competence. If we're talking some serious job, you can be sure the State has its own system of certification. (And that college teachers don't need to be certified also may say something.)
As the Miami University Vice President for Academic Affairs once so sentimentally put it, a degree is a piece of "social currency," and its worth is what it will bring on the market.
Hint: The guy was an economist. Further hint: "The Ivory Tower" is a pleasant myth, or slander; an institution doesn't last since the Middle Ages — BU, and I mean the University of Bologna, claims founding in 1088— a big-time cultural institution like The University doesn't last centuries ignoring sordid realities.
A degree, among other things, is currency or a commodity, and in such cases, "The value of the thing is what the thing will bring" — its market price — and such emphatically-in-quotation-marks "value" depends most directly on reputation.
The value of the degree, though, its actual worth, is relative in a different way: its worth to the holder; it's relative in large part to how the college experience adds value in some non-sordid senses to the individual.
To state and stress the blindingly obvious, the best schools to add various values will vary greatly with different people.
Harvard U does very well in the rankings, and let's say you can get into Harvard and can afford to go there. Should you? Hell, yes! That degree has really high market value; you can get an excellent education there — including from your peers — and the contacts you can make will be very, very valuable, probably including monetarily.
But short of Harvard (or Stanford or Cambridge), there are questions of "fit."
Is the school a good place to study what you are (or your kid is) currently interested in? Is it generally high quality, since there's a good chance that what one wants to do at 18 isn't necessarily what one will want to do at 20 or, as it turns out, one is talented at.
This one — I — started out at Illinois (UIUC) in "Specialized Chemistry": a program for people committed to a career in biochem. I ended up in English Language and Literature, by way of Microbiology.
Does the school have a range of programs in case you change your mind — or learn, say, that biochem requires talent in organic chemistry and that organic chemistry requires spatial perception, which just doesn't run in your family? Is the school cheap enough or offer enough financial support that you can afford to change your mind?
(The four-year degree is something of a superstition — especially given 20th-c. "requirement creep" — and when paying tuition and fees, "Time is money," and extra time to graduate can mean lots of money.)
And is it a place at which you or your kid might be happy?
I got into Johns Hopkins for graduate school, which at that time had a better reputation in my field than Cornell did. I went to Cornell. Hopkins at the time was geared for The Southern Gentleman; Cornell was, as a Princeton half-time show put it, "Cow College of the Ivy League": Cornell is in part a land-grant school and has a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Midwestern Rich Erlich, proud product of 100% land-grant Illinois, correctly chose Cornell. (Bucolic Ithaca, New York, was a different matter: way too rural for Rich Erlich from Chicago. Still, Cornell was a good fit; they just had to move it somewhere else [I suggested Puerto Rico, where the radio astronomers were smart enough to locate].)
The answers — plural — to the question "What's the best university?" require the counter-questions, "Best for whom?" "Best in terms of what?" and some common-sense thinking through issues of "fit."
Without those questions of "fit," just abstract ranking of colleges of universities is important indeed for reputation, but beyond that, they're "compendiums of gossip" and only marginally more respectable than comparisons of body parts and cup sizes.