Admins express doubts over med school rankings

Rankings may be just a number but Duke Med is on top.

According to the latest U.S. News & World Report graduate school rankings, Duke’s medical school—and its affiliated programs—remain among the top in the country.

The school rose in the magazine’s rankings for medical research, up from a tie for sixth last year to a four-way tie for fifth with Stanford University, Yale University and the University of California at San Francisco. In addition, the nursing school tied for seventh, the highest it has ever been rated. Duke’s physician assistant program—the first of its kind when it was founded in 1965—ranked first among similar programs.

Rankings are not the sole measure of success. Although administrators said they are glad Duke remains highly rated, many expressed concerns about the methodology behind the rankings and their role in helping students decide where to attend.

“No doubt the rankings are visible, and there is a lot of attention paid to these by prospective students interested in comparing schools,” Scott Gibson, executive vice dean for administration at the medical school, wrote in an email Monday. “[But] while there is a certain basic pride factor involved, we don’t make decisions... based on their possible impact on the rankings. We make [them] in the best interest of educating the next generation of physician leaders and in the advancement of our research mission to improve U.S. and world health care.”

U.S. News has come under fire in the past because some say its ranking formula pressures schools to accept students based almost solely on their GPAs and standardized test scores. These allegations are supported by the fact that, generally, students at top-ranked schools have higher average test scores than those at lower-ranked ones, as said in a Feb. 14 article for The New Yorker by author Malcolm Gladwell.

Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for academic affairs, wrote in an email Tuesday that in some ways Duke is an exception to this trend. For instance, the medical school does not use GPA or MCAT cutoffs in deciding who to interview, she said.

“While we look for students with outstanding academic credentials, we also recognize that there are students who have tremendous leadership potential but—for any of a variety of reasons—have MCAT scores or GPAs that may not be as high as others,” she said. “Unlike some other institutions... we choose to accept exceptional individuals whose numbers might not be quite as high as others because of what they bring to the class and ultimately, to medicine.”

Andrews added that because U.S. News uses average GPA and MCAT scores as important metrics, Duke’s decision to emphasize other criteria may cause the school to underperform in rankings.

The methodology behind rankings has drawn national attention because of the possibility that some students consider rankings too heavily when deciding which school to attend.

This type of anxiety about rankings, however, is probably misplaced, Gibson said.

“We believe students are attracted [to Duke] because of our unique curriculum, outstanding faculty and clinical and research programs,” he said. “Our students are very successful as they enter residency programs, and certainly that is a major factor as well.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email Monday that though Duke recognizes that rankings may accurately identify broad trends and perceptions, rankings are far from perfect. Students should consider other factors before making a decision, he said.

“We know from years of experience that rankings are one of the many factors that individuals use to make their decisions about which college or graduate school to attend,” Schoenfeld said. “But [they are] rarely the only, or even the most important, factor. We encourage prospective students to gather as much information as possible and make their decisions based on what is best for them.”

Junior Angela Jiang, who plans on attending medical school, said rankings will not be a significant factor when she applies.

“I don’t think the rankings will influence where I apply too much because they’re mostly based on how much funding a school gets for research,” she said. “I want to apply to places that emphasize primary care and problem-based learning.”

Duke’s medical school’s research ranking is noteworthy because it has consistently rated in the top ten. Conversely, the nursing school has only recently climbed to the top, though it has experienced a quick ascent.

“Since 2004, we have moved from 29th to seventh [in the rankings],” said Catherine Gilliss, dean of the School of Nursing and Duke Medicine’s vice chancellor for nursing affairs. “This is the result of our effort to hire outstanding faculty, recruit highly qualified students, develop excellent and relevant programs and conduct important research in the field of health and chronic illness management.”

Gibson said no matter where the medical school ranks in the future, it will always be one of the most distinguished schools in the nation.

“The School of Medicine has a three-year research program, which makes our curriculum very unique among medical schools,” he said. “We also have a very dedicated faculty and staff who really enjoy working with some of the brightest medical students in the country.”

Andrews agreed, adding that she believes the greatest shortcoming of the U.S. News rankings is its inability to measure some of the variables that Duke values most.

“We are proud that we recruit a very diverse group of students,” she said. “There is no metric in the current rankings formula that acknowledges diversity, but we think it is important.”


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