Saturday, August 6, 2011

Apples and Oranges

I saw something in the paper today that at first startled me and then made me snort with laughter. I am not sure my employers will be able to similarly laugh it off.

Northeastern University, where I am employed, has advanced dramatically in the past ten years. At one point we were an open admissions institution with a reputation that did not rival our neighbors' in the Boston area. Last year, however, and in each of the last several years the university's qualitative growth has been remarkable. We were ranked 69th last year in US News and World Report. This year we will likely be ranked somewhere in the 50s. I have heard optimistic predictions that we may be ranked as high as the 30th best research university in the country. At the same time the numbers of students who have applied has soared. This year over 43000 students applied for 2800 slots. So, we are doing well.

I read in today's paper that another organization has ranked universities and this ranking has my employers justifiably irate. Instead of being in the top 100 we are not in the top 400. How can it be that USNews has ranked us so high, and the newcomer has ranked us so relatively low.

The reason is comical if one could maintain one's sense of the humor. It seems as if this other ranking agency has as a criterion the percentage of students who graduate in four years. This criterion has a hefty weight of 20 percent. And in this category we, Northeastern, appear to not measure up. Most of our students graduate in 5 years. Therefore, we would consequently fall in the rankings.

When I read about the criterion, as I write above, I was at first incredulous and then laughed. Northeastern is a five year--not a four year-- school. Nearly all of our students participate in what is called Co-op, Cooperative Education. That means they alternate periods of study with periods of employment in their field. Students do not pay tuition while they are "on co-op"; they get paid by an employer. So, an Accounting major studies Accounting and then works for 6 months in an Accounting firm. Then she or he returns to school, studies in a conventional classroom, and then during the next semester goes back to another Accounting firm. After five years the student has accrued the standard 128 credits and also has had three work experiences.

Since we are a five year school, graduating in five years is what we, the students, and the students' parents expect.

When my school discovered the ranking was based in large part on this alleged deficiency, we contacted the agency. Their response, "Well we have to use the same criteria, otherwise it is 'apples and oranges'."

Well, no. If you were to apply this same measure, then the apt criterion would be, do students graduate on time. If you were to claim that graduating in four years is the appropriate criterion, then Junior Colleges would head the list, because their students would seem to be remarkably quick graduating in 2 years. Six month certificate programs in, say, Cake Baking would do even better, graduating their students in 1/8 the time of say Harvard.

I am startled by how often people use shibboleths like "Apples and Oranges" to justify irrational or irresponsible behavior. My favorites are "Business is Business" and "I was just doing what I had to do." Under the umbrella of "Business is Business" you can steal and deceive. "Doing what I had to do" can justify behaving unethically with employers, friends, sweethearts, and family members.

I am more amused by the ranking than anything else. Nobody but a goof could think that the listing made sense, but I am troubled as I am reminded by how often platitudes are used to be unprofessional or inconsiderate or, in some cases allow for horrifically egregious behaviors. "Just doing my job" and "just following orders" worked well for genocide collaborators.

Now comparing perpetrators of genocide with college ranking irresponsibility would be apples and oranges. Hiding behind shibboleths, however, seems to work for all sorts of fruits.

No comments:

Post a Comment