Apparently some believe that the best way to counter the influence of the admittedly flawed US News & World Report college rankings is to come up with a competing system, even if that system is almost certainly substantially more flawed than that which we already have. And I don’t say this out of a sense of loyalty to my alma mater or indignance over the fact that the Washington Monthly college rankings only has Williams ranked 8th in their liberal arts college category. Or at least I don’t make this argument exclusively for those reasons.

Look, I think it’s great for a college to prize upward mobility or something as ultimately amorphous as “service,” which the Washington Monthly ratings privilege. And I know that the goal of this ranking is to assess what the magazine calls the “common good.” But ultimately the goal of college is to educate and to produce knowledge. That is the best way to serve the common good.

I also only looked at the methodology briefly, but I simply do not see how Presbyterian College can earn a number one ranking given that within the paltry and arbitrary academic categories of the ratings Presbyterian does not rank at all, but beyond that, other than ROTC participation, that South Carolina college also appears underwhelming in the other categories as well. And why ROTC? Why not medical school applicants and acceptances? Lawyers who go on to do pro bono work? People who go on to teach in inner city schools, or work in nonprofits, or who work with the infirm? The more I think about it, the more this particular ranking system seems like a shoddy exercise in contrarianism couched in the accoutrements of an elusive and ill-defined “common good.”

At the risk of coming across as elitist, it is impossible to take seriously a national ranking of liberal arts colleges in which Presbyterian Collage ranks higher than Amherst, Swarthmore, Middlebury, and Williams, never mind in which it is considered the number one college in the nation in the category. In the case of higher education, a certain level of elitism is good as long as the elitism corresponds with merit as opposed to entitlement. Better to err on the side of promoting excellence and relying on those who graduate from your institution to do well and good in the world than to set up arbitrary and mushy benchmarks for virtue.

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