Rank and file

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A good college ranking is like an iPad: Those that have one swear by it, and those that don’t claim it’s useless.

Last week, U.S. News and World Report released their annual Best Colleges rankings. This report is the Simon Cowell of all other rankings. Like the American Idol days of past years, it matters little whether Randy Jackson uses the words “yo dawg” 15 times to tell an artist she is cool or whether Paula Abdul’s eyes got dreamy to tell an artist he is sweet. In the end, even though text messages from Americans across the country would determine a hopeful’s fate, all that mattered was what the skin-tight-T-shirt-wearing Simon had to say.

This year, “Simon” placed UT as the 45th best university in the country and the 13th best public university, the same spots it held last year.

Rankings are a long-standing tradition, born out of our insatiable, capitalistic need to quantify and compare. Like fast food, we admit its faults, inadequacies and potential side effects yet consume it anyway. And while education is meant to dictate rankings, rankings tend to dictate education.

When Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told the Board of Regents last May that the UT System needs to support the Austin campus’ goal to become the best public university in the country, we assume we will get there when “Simon” says we do.

The report’s methodologies are outlined on its website. It places different weights on several categories, such as academic reputation, student selectivity, faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, financial resources per student and alumni giving. These categories are then broken down into several subcategories. This makes playing the rankings game all the more easier.

Yet chasing the limelight of a top ranking runs in the opposite direction of another entity: the Capitol.

A few weeks ago, Marc Musick, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, published an analysis that touted UT as the second most efficient public research institution behind the University of Florida when considering tuition, state appropriations and six-year graduation rates. But not all have taken the liberty to paint UT as beating the odds in the face of a frugal state.

Faculty resources account for 20 percent of the U.S. News rankings. The ranking measures how many classes have more than 50 students and how many classes have fewer than 20 students. At UT, that is 25 percent and 34 percent respectively, both of which are on the unfavorable end of the comparative scale. Additionally, last year — the year from which the data are taken — there were 384 classes that had more than 100 students. This is the largest number since at least 2004, the oldest report posted on the Office of Information Management and Analysis’ website.

Then there is the financial resources section of the rankings, which accounts for 10 percent of a university’s score. This adds together factors such as student services, academic support, operations and maintenance and then divides them by the number of full-time equivalent undergraduate students.

And at UT, any time you divide something by about 38,000, the results tend to be lower than you hoped for.

Finally, there is the always-contentious academic reputation measurement of the rankings, which accounts for about 22.5 percent of a university’s total score, the majority of which is determined by what presidents, provosts and deans of admissions at other universities think about various institutions. Bolstering perceptions at universities can include costly facilities and name-brand faculty.

The traditional methods to improve UT’s rankings will be to invest heavily in ways that counter the notions of efficiency. Low tuition and state investment, combined with a large undergraduate population is a great asset in one report and a great excuse in another.

The economic realities call for tough decision-making. Yet as University decision makers play Simon Says while being careful not to get Rick Roll’d by the Capitol, they need to remember that weighing rankings and efficiency is a battle for numbers when the real focus should be on a battle for people.

While students value both affordability and prestige, ultimately a UT education needs to stand on its own.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board