"Living in a Five-Star World" by Director of College Counseling Kate Ramsdell
Just last week I decided not to buy a pair of pajama pants for my husband because the average of all customers’ ratings was 2.5 stars out of a possible 5. Their major flaw was the fact that they “shrank up a great deal – almost 2 inches!” In spite of the fact that I really didn’t have the time, I was reading the ratings for a pair of pajama pants. Perhaps more notably, I let a group of random strangers – whose sartorial pre-dispositions, sizes, general attitudes, and overall capacity to judge pajama pants notwithstanding – dictated my behavior. I’m not ashamed; I saved myself twenty-five dollars and my husband the humiliation of too-short PJ pants.
Recently, I’ve used the ubiquitous 5-star rating to help me choose accommodations for a family trip to New Orleans and then to differentiate among hundreds of BBQ joints in Austin, Texas (yes, Franklin BBQ is as good as the wait is long, and you can’t beat the sausage at Kreuz Market in Lockhart – they ship anywhere in the U.S.). I have also sought ratings for medical practitioners when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and for my newborn sons as I began the mystical journey into the world of new parenthood. Ratings have sometimes proven useful to me, though admittedly more useful for avoiding a bad meal or short pajamas than choosing the pediatrician or oncologist with the right balance of knowledge, experience, empathy and humor to suit our family’s needs.
Certainly as the “National Reply Date” of May 1 approaches for Class I students who are choosing a college at which to matriculate, and as we in the college office begin the sometimes mystical journey into the college process with our juniors, the question of ratings abounds. We familiarize ourselves with college rankings annually so that we can help our students understand what they really measure, and so that we can urge our counselees – and their families – to develop their own understanding of quality and their own five-star system for finding the institutions where they might thrive.
When U.S. News and World Report ranks colleges, they take a number of indicators into account, but they weight what they describe as “peer assessment” quite heavily. They ask college presidents, provosts, and deans to offer ratings to their peer institutions regarding undergraduate academic reputation. Interestingly, they also survey secondary school guidance counselors at 2,200 public schools and an array of the largest independent schools in the country. What I found most intriguing is that: “Each academic and counselor surveyed was asked to rate schools' academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who didn't know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly were asked to mark ‘don't know.’”(1) And while I realize that talented statisticians employed by U.S. News are working to control for error and outliers, and that my colleagues in this profession work to develop informed opinions, many thoughts, ideas and experiences go into these anonymous 1-5 ratings.
In a different way, “peer ratings” seem to matter a great deal to the kids we work with and sometimes to their families. The opinions and experiences of a neighbor’s child, a grandparent, a former teacher, or a friend can take on disproportionate weight. Add to that the swirl of media attention – even Frank Bruni has decided that college admission is his soap box – uncertainty about one’s financial future, the rising cost of education, and the various demands and stressors that could impact a family’s capacity and desire to send a child away from home to college, and an external rating system – 5-star, peer or otherwise – seems woefully inadequate.
Though I understand that crowd-sourcing opinions is a part of the world that we live in, what I am sure we can all agree to is that decisions are often hard; they are particularly challenging when they involve one’s future, wellness, or mortality. What we strive for in the college office is to help you measure your own values, expectations, performance and interests against the larger landscape. Sometimes we think it is valuable to include what Forbes, Princeton Review or U.S. News has to say on the matter of quality; sometimes, we do not.
We spend the better part of almost two years building relationships with our counselees and their families, often longer if we have had the chance to teach, advice, coach or dorm parent them. Though we have useful guideposts in the external measures and the data that we consult, it is the meaningful connection and the trusting and supportive relationships that we build with our counselees and their families that seem to serve us best as we all work through a process whose complexity almost always belies the rankings.
(1) How U.S. News Calculated the 2016 Best Colleges Rankings http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings