KUDOS to the Princeton Review, those infamous test-prep gurus in New York City. They have effectively created a set of rankings that no college actually wants to win.
This year, the University of Tennessee was the unhappy recipient of the Review's well-known "Best Party School" national title. Not only is the distinction ridiculous, it is a nightmare for officials who must deal with the deluge of questions and complaints from media and prospective students.
Admissions officials at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville were rattled, to say the least, when they discovered that their school beat out everybody else for the unfortunate title. Tennessee took top honors for "Most beer" in the Review's "Best 331 Colleges" book, making the university the uncontested leader in the parties category.
This is the same University of Tennessee that is, according to its school Web site, investing in research centers and academic programs to "provide an outstanding education for undergraduate and graduate students." Vice President and provost Dr. Loren Crabtree said, "students are our top priority" in his online welcome letter. With information praising Tennessee's commitment to students' intellectual development and students' accounts of their strictly social development, prospective students understandably would be confused.
Social rankings simply cause prospective students to color any and everything else that admissions officials say with distrust. Tennessee's admissions office might be extolling its worldwide renown in medieval history research, but that won't prevent the "Most beer" distinction from swirling in the backs of prospective students' minds. The more studious contingent at Tennessee will not be taken seriously, since the school is more commonly known for having the nation's rowdiest party animals - the students who begin partying on Wednesdays and don't stop until the last drop of liquor is consumed on Sunday night.
Princeton Review may have had prospective students in mind, but it certainly ignored the dignity of the faculty at Tennessee, which is affected by the overall reputation of the school and thus the extent to which students take school seriously. Tennessee's faculty members are the unwitting losers in all of this because their hard work and scholarship has been marred by this senseless award.
Though academic rankings can also hurt a college's reputation, they keep a school's goals in line by making academic excellence the primary mission. Social rankings, on the other hand, do nothing but cripple a school's reputation. Administrators waste countless hours answering to the public about its social reputation.
The Princeton Review handles college rankings a little differently than organizations like U.S. News and World Report and Kaplan. While the Review's "Best 331 Colleges" book does include its own set of academic rankings, it adds a twist in the form of social rankings, which supposedly do prospective students more justice when selecting a college. This is where the rankings go horribly wrong.
Unlike U.S. News, Princeton Review publishes additional rankings based on college students' opinions about the quality of life and campus atmosphere in an attempt to give color commentary to its rather cut and dry academic rankings.
But with such embarrassing titles as "Best party school," "Professors suck all life from materials" and "Students least happy," you can be sure any administrators would be more than a tad upset if they heard that their college's name topped those lists.
This was unfortunately the case with Tennessee. Crabtree made it clear that academic rankings and the success rates of graduates are the criteria schools ought to be focusing on ("Top Party School? Ranking Rankles Officials at U. of Tennessee at Knoxville," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 21). Yet they are forced to spend time excusing their students' flamboyant behavior outside of the classroom. This takes time away from administrators that could be spent looking for high quality professors, attracting good students and improving class curricula.
If a prospective student interested in Tennessee's respected chemistry program heard current students saying they "swill warm beer, hang out with sorority girls, pass out, wake up around noon, put on [their] orange [clothing], and sneak some Jack Daniels into the game," he might assume that was the norm.
The Princeton Review should veer away from student surveys altogether. Granted, its mission is simply to help students choose a good school. But when this mission distracts administrators from improving their academics, this is where they ought to draw the line.
The rankings have lauded the lesser-known efforts of U.Va., which received high marks for its libraries and having an administration that "runs like butter." In the same way, they have questioned the academic rigor of schools like University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa and University of Georgia, whose students apparently "almost never study."
As the college admissions season revs up again, the Princeton Review should reconsider how far it will play the ratings game. Maybe after checking on the schools they have rated poorly in the past, they will finally see what an injustice student surveys are.
(Juliana Chan's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.)