Ranking Universities

Who is best?   Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Duke, Imperial College, … ?

My daughter applied to quite a number of universities this year, and I am feeling like an ill-informed consumer.  Not so much because I haven’t informed myself, but because the data I see is either of dubious relevance or follows a dubious methodology.

Most of these educational rankings are built of three kinds of factors:

  1. Money.   E.g. how much money comes in.
  2. Counting people.   E.g. student/teacher ratios.
  3. Counting research results.  E.g. published research papers and Nobel prizes.
  4. Opinions.  E.g. what people think about it.
  5. Admission statistics. E.g. what fraction do they accept and what fraction take up the offer.

The trouble is that none of these factors are particularly satisfactory::

  1. Money doesn’t directly educate people.
  2. Smaller classes ought to be better, but when I read the research literature [e.g. 1, 2, ] it doesn’t seem to make a big difference.  And, those studies are mostly done on primary schools, not universities, so who knows how relevant they are?   Universities also have the complication of a wide variety of class sizes, from single-person tutorials (e.g. Oxford) up to huge lectures (e.g. nearly everywhere).  Thus, you can have two universities with the same student/teacher ratio: one could have all mid-size classes and the other could have a mix of small classes and large lectures.
  3. I am a firm believer that education should be done by people who have enough knowledge of the field to admit all the things we don’t know.  Researchers are good at that; people who do nothing but teach must surely be tempted to compromise and to teach what the students want to hear.  In my experience, students want short, simple, complete answers and textbooks often supply such answers even if the truth is messier (for example, see here).  BUT, research isn’t the same thing as teaching, so it can’t be more than a correlation.
  4. Everyone has opinions, but what are they based on?  Ideally, you’d like to ask a lot of people who went undergraduate at X, graduate school at Y, and taught at Z, and then put their opinions together.  Nobody can really compare more than about three universities, not if you want an informed choice.  But what is usually done?  They ask deans to rate all 500 universities in the survey.  The Dean probably knows something, first-hand, about five, and he/she has good second-hand rumors from people at another dozen, perhaps.  Where do the rest of the ratings come from?  Thin air, or perhaps from reading last-year’s survey.
  5. The acceptance rate just depends on how many people apply.   So, that’s just the opinion of parents.  The fraction of people who take up the offer is just the opinion of students who haven’t been to university yet, so that’s not particularly helpful.

This was all made more obvious by moving from the US to the UK a few years ago.  Now, in 2011, I have pretty strong opinions about a lot of UK universities, many of which I had never even heard of when I lived in the States.  And, I had totally missed some pretty good places, like Warwick or Imperial College.  I did know that Durham was pretty good, a place that few other people in the US had heard about, but I only had a high opinion of it because I worked with a good grad-student who came from Durham.  Without that one chance encounter, Durham would have been a blank.

Now, I ask myself, “Where do my opinions about UK universities come from?”  Not from personal experience!  I’ve visited Cambridge once (Physics department), Edinburgh once (Speech technology and Linguistics), University College London twice (Nanotechnology and Linguistics), Birmingham University once (Computer Science), and that’s about it.  Hardly a uniform sample, and hardly a big one.  I’ve met a lot of professors from other UK universities at conferences and a fair number of students who have come to Oxford, but those are almost all speech scientists or linguists.  My only basis for an overall evaluation of universities (rather than their language and speech departments) are what I read on the web or in newspapers.

But you also pick these things up by talking to people.  Everyone else has opinions and expresses them with that shrug of the shoulders or that tone of voice.  But, do they have a better basis for their opinions than I do?  I doubt it.

So, where did we apply, and why?  (But don’t take this bit seriously.)

  • Cambridge, probably so she wouldn’t have to live at home.  (NB: You can’t apply to both Cambridge and Oxford.)
  • Durham, because it’s a good place (at least based on one grad student) and it’s not in London.
  • MIT, probably because MIT students put a police car up on the Great Dome, years ago.  Also, a “weird, energetic” culture and a couple of good lectures during a campus visit.  And, both of her parents went there, years ago.
  • Stanford.  Palm trees, blue skies, an atmosphere of academics mixed with luxury, and a really enthusiastic tour guide.  Good lectures.
  • Johns Hopkins, despite the fact that a student there told us “I like it here, but if you can get into X, I’d go there instead.”  The April fool’s prank certainly helped: it showed the administration had a sense of humor.   Good stuff on display in the physics lobby, but a negative was they wouldn’t let us to to a lecture.
  • Not Harvard, despite it’s high rank.  I think it was because the tour guides and campus visit were remarkably uninformative.  Too careful and cautious.  We visited some classes: an excellent history lecture and a mediocre statistics lecture.
  • Princeton.  Perhaps because of Hoagie Haven.  They would have let us into a lecture, but we didn’t realize it at first.
  • Duke.  Good place, near the family, good visit.
  • …and a few of other places.

My daughter requires me to say that there were other, more rational reasons in addition to those above.  For instance, Durham (like Cambridge) offers Natural Sciences instead of Physics, which is attractive because she doesn’t want to focus down too tightly, too soon.  But some of the decision really does come down to the visit: the tour guides, the lectures, the stuff on the walls, and the way the students walk.