Breaking: CMU now just 'good' at CS

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It’s college season, and like a bunch of nerds who never got over our long list of rejections, it’s time to dive into the crapshoot that is the U.S. News College Rankings.

Honestly, this was originally going to be a rant about how CMU was dropped from one to four in the CS rankings, and how angry I was about that, but honestly, after digging through the U.S. News article on their new rankings, their weights, and also how they do field-specific rankings, I had… well, a lot more to say.

We all know the rankings are B.S., right? Like, just outside of it all, the rankings are, on the whole, genuinely stupid. Using U.S. News to talk about things is like comparing colleges based on the number of people who eat glue there — it’s not really a thing that’s worth commenting on (I ate way more glue than those chumps at MIT though, for the record).

At the same time, it’s a source of a lot of prestige for plenty of people across the country. Every college brands itself using the rankings that people seem to consider important — from CMU bragging about its 12 different degree programs, for example, to ASU slapping “Ranked #1 in Innovation, over Stanford” in every single email they send to you.

It’s a part of a serious issue for colleges, where the gaining of a ranking is, in and of itself, a huge part of where they gain their prestige and relevance. A prime example of this is Northeastern, which went from a “Who?” school in Bahstan to a “Top-50” with tens of thousands of applicants. Another example, Tulane, a party school in New Orleans which somehow changed into a respectable institution of higher education.

They all did it through a combination of factors: making applications easier, reaching out to students to convince them to apply, and most importantly, bringing down acceptance rates while increasing selectivity and test scores.

While that was happening on the edge of the so-called "Top 50," it’s been happening across the entirety of the rankings for years, where various colleges try to game the system to portray themselves as significantly better than they were last year.

But when it comes down to it, how does it even matter? Is CMU suddenly worse than MIT? Did Andrew Carnegie (peace be upon him) suddenly stop fueling this place’s research with his blind disregard of workers rights? Or did a bunch of crackpots in a room suddenly decide that one little number was different from another little number and suddenly a bunch of things shifted.

Because have you looked at those methodologies?

There’s a lot in there that has nothing to do with academics, or learning, or education. It’s a lot of factors that are so-called “soft factors,” where different colleges excel based on what niche they fit into.

And of course, there’s the name factor. If you have a good reputation, you’re high in the rankings. And if you’re high in the rankings, you get a reputation. That’s a vicious cycle that rewards places for being well-regarded in the eyes of their peers, but not really for, well, y’know, being good at their jobs?

A full 20 percent is just left up to this amorphous blob of “well, what do other people think about you?”

Does that really matter? Does it matter if “people” know that Mizzou is one of the best journalism schools in the country? Or is it the fact that Mizzou consistently pushes out some of the brightest, best trained journalists that do the talking for them? Does the reputation of an institute really make a difference, especially when they’re well known in the field? Is there something intrinsically special about the household names in colleges, even if those don’t make a damn speck of difference in their ability to teach?

It sucks, yeah. CMU lost a #1 spot. Maybe it’ll never get it back. Perhaps the days of “#1 CS school in the country” are over, gone for good. Maybe people won’t recognize us anymore. We’ve lost our gasp bragging rights, what if we just get forgotten as another, “good,” CS school?

Oh, the horror.

People aren’t gonna magically learn about colleges from rankings. They won’t forget about them because of rankings either. If you grew up in the south, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Bama, or Georgia, or Auburn. Significantly more than those know about Carnegie Mellon. And trust me, a whole lot more people know the intricacies of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate than about the capabilities of the CMU Math Department.

So when you see those rankings, think about it. Does it really matter? You may think it’s nice to brag about, but if you’re at that point, a gentle reminder most people will think you mean Central Michigan.

Rankings, fundamentally, are flawed. They don’t adequately describe anything — they’re a litmus test to help people differentiate the chaff from the quality, but in all reality, they’re just a bunch of numbers some suits threw at a wall hoping they’d stick. Some of them do, some of them don’t, but at the end of the day they’re not much more than numbers.

If you really want to put CMU on the map, convince the administration to put some money in our football program. Roll Tarts!