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Let’s Not Make This A Popularity Contest…

July 8th, 2007 · 3 Comments

In a previous post, I talked about how a number of liberal arts colleges were threatening to stop participating in the U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities. I am happy to see that they seem to be against the explicit ranking rather than the provision of (hopefully) useful information.

In an article from the July 4th NYT, a number of higher education officials say that there are plans in the works to provide comprehensive school information via a collective web site. To quote the article:

“Katherine Will, the president of Gettysburg College and chairwoman of the Annapolis Group, said, “Our sense is, we’re educators — if you feel that there is not enough information out there, well, by golly, we’ll give it to you.”

“I think the key thing that institutions are saying is, compare schools, don’t rank them,” Dr. Will added.”

I appreciate the sentiment, I really do. However, I have a feeling that this system may not be as useful to prospective students and their families. Why? People suffer from the curse of bounded rationality and also limited time. In other words, who is going to sort through a two-page summary for every school in the country and then try to make sense of it all? Fair or not, the rankings provide a heuristic for at least giving a student a starting place for considering schools. Furthermore, people tend to suffer from confirmation bias, whereby they seek out and interpret information that supports their previously held beliefs.

The issues that I mention generally center around the problem of overchoice, and could be mitigated through a clever navigation system on this new hypothetical web site. You know how on Amazon and Netflix they have a box that says something along the lines of “if you liked product X, you are likely to also like products Y and Z”? The college site could do the same thing- “if you are considering Williams, you might also be interested in Swarthmore and Amherst”. (Hypothetical example only of course- I have no idea whether this would hold in practice.) This way students wouldn’t only take the time to look at schools that they were already curious about and could be introduced to new options, just as she probably was when looking at the U.S. News rankings. Unfortunately, these features are also easier said than done- I foresee the same arguments over any sort of potential “relatedness” algorithm that schools are currently having with the rankings! I think they’d better be careful, lest we revert back to a system of children either going to the parents’ alma mater or the school that they happened to hear about when they were little. I’m sure schools like Washington University in St. Louis, currently ranked 12th in national colleges, would have a lot to say about that. I really don’t think that schools need any more of an incentive to invest in brand equity.

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