Am I Selling “Mathematical Nonsense?”

When I started a line of research on college rankings and value-added, I assumed that if my work ever saw the light of day, it would be at least somewhat controversial. I’ve gotten plenty of feedback on my academic research on the topic, and most of that has been at least mildly encouraging. And I’ve gotten even more feedback on the Washington Monthly college rankings, most of which has also been fairly positive. This work has given me the opportunity to talk with dozens of institutional researchers, college presidents, and provosts from around the country about their best practices for measuring student success.

But one e-mail that we received was sharply negative and over the top. Frederik Ohles, president of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska, sent along a wonderful missive. Here is the edited version that ran in this month’s magazine (subscribe to the print version here):


“There are lots of things that I’ve long admired about your magazine. And for that reason, I had thought you might do a better job in the business of college rankings than U.S. News & World Report. But on reading this year’s issue, I was disappointed. In the Monthly college rankings, Nebraska Wesleyan University is predicted to graduate 66 percent, graduates 65 percent, and you rank us number 144 [out of 254] for that result.

What kind of Rube Goldberg-inspired formula would lead to this result? Sorry, folks, but you’ve discredited yourselves with such mathematical nonsense. In the future you’d better stick to subjects that you know something about. Math and ranking methodologies sure aren’t among them.”


The e-mail went on to call me and the rest of the College Guide staff “charlatans,” just like the U.S. News staff, but you get the point. In any case, I resisted a strong urge to snark in the published response, an excerpt of which is below:

“You focus entirely on the numerator of the measure in your letter and do not mention the denominator—the annual net price of attendance, in your school’s case $20,723. If the net price of Nebraska Wesleyan University were lower, the school’s ranking on this measure would be higher.”

In my full response, I assured Mr. Ohles that it is my goal to never be a charlatan. But am I selling mathematical nonsense? You be the judge.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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