Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Gaming the Ranking System
Recently, in the The Economist:

The ladder of fame

(and, also, an obligatory link to The Onion article: Oooh, Look At Me, I Read The Economist!)

It's a shame that it's one of the "premium content" articles, but it's primarily a critique of the U.S. News & World Report's college rankings. There's one key quote:
Colin Diver, the president of Reed College in Oregon, considers that "rankings create powerful incentives to manipulate data and distort institutional behaviour." A school may game the system by soliciting applications from students who stand no chance of admission, or by leaning on alumni to arrange jobs for graduates.
Keeping with the theme of this blog, let's relate it to my own personal life. Last week, I returned home to find a letter from the UW-Madison School of Business, which I've taken two classes from, but as an economics major, not a business student. It was signed by the school's dean. It began:
You and I have something in common. We both graduated from the UW-Eau Claire Department of Economics, which I understand is now the home of the Flying Pig. I hope your experience at UW-Eau Claire was as good as mine.


I believe a Wisconsin MBA can greatly contribute to your success. I feel so strongly about it, in fact, I'm willing to personally cover the cost of your application fee. [emphasis in original]
Set aside the fact that I've never attended UW-Eau Claire (a follow-up letter later apologized for the mixup. The Eau Claire letter was sent to Madison economics alumni). And the fact that I'm about as interested in an MBA as I am in getting pneumonia. And the fact that now I'm very curious about this flying pig business (answer here). Why would they send me such a letter? Why waive the application fee?

I'd like to be self-flattering and assume that they were so impressed by my performance as an undergraduate that they'd like to bring me in to dazzle them with my academic performance, enliven classroom discussion, and eventually leave and make the school proud with my many post-graduation successes.

I, of course, have no intention of doing any of those things, nor, do I believe, do they think I do. It's more that, being part of UW system, the school has access to a lot of alumni information. The letter I received went to plenty of economics major alumni, and I doubt they solely went to those with a high GPA or those who landed particularly prestigious jobs.

Rather, the numbers have something to do with it. The current dean has been credited with rapidly pulling the school up in the rankings lately. Partially, it's been due to specialization to differentiate from powerful generalist schools like Wharton and Harvard (see B-Schools With A Niche).

But soliciting applications is a great trick for boosting numbers. Of course, intuitively, the more applicants you have, the better the pickings when selecting an entering class (boosting the average GPA and test score numbers). But any applicant, regardless of quality, is an asset because, if rejected, it's a boost to that other prestige-linked stat, selectivity.

Maybe I'm too distrustful if their intent, but hey, as the page on the flying pig reads, "good economists should have a healthy skepticism."
LOL! Good programs don't solicit applications. Especially not in that manner.
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