I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble the other day to pick up a new pair of reading glasses, and remembered I needed a new K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities to replace my dog-eared, out of date, copy. What a valuable resource this hefty tome is for anyone stressing out about where an unconventional learner with a diagnosed disability will land in higher education. The K&W Guide is everything a college guide ought to be. It provides thorough and detailed information on the extent of support services offered by a range of colleges across the country and profiles each school’s services. It groups colleges into three categories based on their level of support resources. What it doesn’t do is opine on which college is “best”. You read the K&W and you come away with a sense of relief, a feeling of real hope for unconventional learners as they embark on the next chapter of their academic, and let’s face it, social lives. The K&W guide makes it possible for a parent to match a college or a program with an individual student’s needs. The guide was created by Marybeth Kravits and Imy F. Wax, to fulfill a need, and not to maximize profit for their publisher, The Princeton Review. They are performing a service.
As I wait my turn in line at the BN cash register my eye catches the new U.S. News Best Colleges issue; the one that says in bold letters right on the cover, Exclusive Rankings. And then it happens. I can feel the twitching in my brain, the need, the anxiety, the adrenaline beginning to pump. I’m like a recovering alcoholic who needs a drink and is forced to stand at a bar staring at a bottle that says, “Best Hooch in Town. Get Drunk Now!” You see, everybody in the college admissions game knows the U.S. News College Rankings guide is a farce. Even the people at the colleges and universities who participate in creating the list know it’s a lot of hocus-pocus. Lloyd Thacker has spent the better part of a decade debunking and exposing the rankings at The Education Conservancy (http://www.educationconservancy.org/), and Loren Pope created the book and website “Colleges That Change Lives” (www.ctcl.org) to provide an information service that evaluates the quality of education that actually occurs on campuses.
Other professionals have dissected the U.S. News Rankings formula and exposed the bad science and profit machine behind it. Malcolm Gladwell sliced and diced the guide in a delightful article for The New Yorker. (February 14, 2011) Gladwell points out that among other glaring weaknesses, the U.S. News rankings reward admission selectivity over efficacy, i.e., what the colleges actually do, by an overwhelming margin. In our present economy affordability and accessibility are of increasing importance in higher education but are not factored at all in the rankings – the least affordable and accessible colleges are perennially considered the “best”. Can one really compare Penn State to Yeshiva University, asks Gladwell. Then why are they just one tick apart in the same survey?
But I graduated from a large prestigious state university that slipped a couple of notches a few years ago (we wuz robbed!), and my two sons graduated from a couple of private schools that weighed in around 11 in their respective categories at the time. So even though I know the rankings are bogus, I’m staring at the magazine thinking it would be so be cool if our schools popped into the top ten. What I really mean is wouldn’t my sons and I be so cool. And what that really means is that I want, I mean I need, six guys in a cramped office in Georgetown who have created a commodity out of smoke and mirrors, hearsay and irrelevant statistics, just to make money for a publisher, to assure me that I’m cool. Now that’s sick. But I’m dying to take a peek. So I buy the rag. Our alma maters didn’t make the jump up the ladder. I don’t feel cool. In fact, I feel lousy.