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College rankings twist

The biggest event that takes place in the Kubagawa household in August is neither my parents' anniversary nor my brother's birthday; it is the purchase of U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" issue.

My parents always make note of the magazine's popular rankings release date, and like crazed Harry Potter fanatics, they rush to the nearest Barnes & Noble as soon as the magazine is available to the public. Within 24 hours of purchase, my father has already highlighted, marked and analyzed the list of schools with, of course, no other real intention except to see how Duke University and other institutions perform year after year.

My parents are not alone in how much they value these rankings because I know at some point each of us valued these rankings, too. I chose to apply to certain schools over others during my senior year of high school, even if I didn't have the chance to visit the respective campuses before their application deadlines, because the percentages of various inputs (that I could care less about now) apparently impressed me enough back then. I don't even think twice when Duke is described as a "top-five" institution anymore. I've accepted it as fact.

So what happens when we're ranked 21st instead?

When a professor showed me a college list recently released by the Washington Monthly where Duke ranked 21st, I honestly laughed. Like every college administrator, I have scoffed off the ranking systems of most magazines as inadequate indicators of the quality of schools.

The Washington Monthly explored "what colleges are doing for the country" in terms of generating Ph.D.s, scientists and service-oriented professionals and promoting "social mobility" by graduating students from low-income areas. By focusing the role of higher education within the realm of national service, the magazine revealed how schools with commitments to scientific research, the Peace Corps, ROTC and community-service work-study jobs-the original intention of the Federal Work-Study Program-fared in comparison to each other.

What happens when you forget about the SAT scores of an incoming class and focus instead on an institution's commitment to scientific research and civic engagement?

MIT comes out as the top-dog winner in first. The big suprise loser? Harvard at 44th.

Now, while I consider the criteria to be limiting in many ways which I do not have room to delineate here, I did find the survey's discoveries to be revealing in some respects. With only 10 percent of students representing the bottom half of our nation's income scale at our "top-ten" (according to U.S. News & World Report, of course) institutions, it's no wonder then that the Washington Monthly rankings show, if anything, that many of our elite universities fare worse when it comes to civic duty than incoming freshman acceptance rates. Aside from MIT, only Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania attained a "top ten" status in both lists.

This is not surprising since, in the mess that is the admissions process of colleges like Duke, there are times when a student's money, not merit, matters. I'm sure we've all met a Duke student who leaves us wondering how much his parents must donate.

With such a high concentration of wealth at elite schools, it's sometimes hard to do real community service rather than merely debating issues of racism, poverty and injustice and throwing money at the problems. Let me be the first to say that I am part of the guilty. Just look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which has forced us to take a closer look at the pervasive role of class. I couldn't have been prouder of the three Duke students who went above and beyond my gesture of donating food points by actually helping the victims of New Orleans first hand. I was embarrassed, but not surprised, that before they even headed down on their trip, they got a lot of laughs from other students.

We can brush off this dire ranking and keep the widely accepted fifth-place one, but really, who are we kidding?

Miho Kubagawa is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.

 

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