A College Ranking to Virginia’s Liking

There are plenty of people in the college rating game these games, from the venerable US News & World-Report to Forbes magazine to the Wall Street Journal. Results vary depending on the criteria selected and the weight assigned to those criteria, both of which entail decisions and value judgments subject to human bias. But what if Artificial Intelligence was used to compile the rankings?

That’s what MetaMetrics, a Durham, N.C.-based company specializing in educational metrics, has tried to do. MetaMetrics research engineer Steve Lattanzio explains:

Was it possible to have a computer algorithm take in a bunch of raw data and, through a sufficiently black-box approach, remove decision points that allow ratings to become subjective? … Could an artificial intelligence discover a latent dimension hidden behind all the noise that was driving data points such as SAT scores, admission rates, earnings, loan repayment rates, and a thousand other things, instead of combining just a few of them in a subjective fashion?

The company drew upon the College Scoreboard, an exhaustive U.S. Department of Education database on colleges, students, and student loans. Lattanzio continues:

We use neural networks to perform “representational learning” through the use of what is called a stacked autoencoder. I’ll skip over the technical details, but the concept behind representational learning is to take a bunch of information that is represented in a lot of variables, or dimensions, and represent as much of the original information as possible with a lot fewer dimensions. In a stacked neural network autoencoder, data entering into the network is squashed down into fewer and fewer dimensions on one side and squeezed through a bottleneck. On the other side of the network, that squashed information is unpacked in an attempt to reconstruct the original data. …  the AI isn’t figuring out which subset of variables it wants to keep and which it wants to discard; it is figuring out how to express as much of the original data as possible in brand new meta-variables that it is concocting by combining the original data in creative ways. …

It turns out that we were able to compress all of the information down to just two dimensions, and the significance of those two dimensions was immediately clear.

One dimension has encoded a latent dimension that is related to things such as the size of the school and whether it is public or private (in fact, the algorithm decided there should be a rift mostly separating larger public institutions from smaller schools). The other dimension is a strong candidate for overall quality of a school and is correlated with all of the standard indicators of quality. It seems as if the algorithm learned that for higher education, if you must break it down into two things, [the data] is best broken down into two dimensions that can loosely be described as quantity and quality.

Got that? Good. So, here are the results for the top 20 colleges:

  1. Duke University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Vanderbilt University
  4. Cornell University
  5. Brown University
  6. Emory University
  7. University of Virginia
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Boston College
  10. University of Notre Dame
  11. College of William & Mary
  12. University of Southern California
  13. Wesleyan University
  14. Yale University
  15. Massachusetts of Technology
  16. Northwestern University
  17. Bucknell University
  18. University of Pennsylvania
  19. Santa Clara University
  20. Carnegie Mellon University

What? No Harvard or Princeton? Correct. The AI does not take into account intangible factors such as prestige. By the AI’s reckoning, it appears, those institutions are over-rated.

Virginia higher-ed officials looking for bragging rights can surely find them with this methodology — at least if they don’t dig too deep. UVa ranks 7th in the country and W&M ranks 11th. They are two of only three public universities on the list. The University of Richmond, described as a “hidden ivy,” logged in at 32nd, while Washington & Lee University scored 63. As comedian Larry David might say, that’s pretty, pretty impressive.

Virginia’s non-elite public universities scored fair to middling, according to the AI’s way of thinking. Out of 1,313 institutions nationally:

James Madison University — 146
Virginia Tech — 157
Virginia Military Institute — 199
George Mason University — 316
Radford University — 482
Longwood University — 495
Virginia Commonwealth University — 504
Old Dominion University — 951
Norfolk State University — 1,164
Virginia State University — 1,213

I could find no mention of Mary Washington University or the University of Virginia-Wise.

MetaMetrics provides plenty of caveats, which you can read here. The ranking “is not perfect and the rankings should not be viewed as infallible,” writes Lattanzio. “But when viewed among other college rankings, its validity is undeniable. It’s not merely a measure of prestige, and it addresses most of the concerns of critics of college rankings, while undoubtedly raising some new ones.”

I do fine one thing very curious. The company is located in Durham, N.C., home of Duke University. Four of the company’s top 11 senior executives have Duke affiliations — as does Lattanzio himself. Who ranks as the No. 1 university in the country? Duke, of course. Pure coincidence? Let’s just say, when Duke plays the University of North Carolina in basketball, you can probably find the AI in the stands rooting for the Blue Devils.

(Hat tip: Mary Helen Willett)

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8 responses to “A College Ranking to Virginia’s Liking”

  1. S. E. Warwick Avatar
    S. E. Warwick

    Um. Yale seems to be 14 on the list.

    1. Right you are!

      I’ve made the correction.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This is a marvelous illustration of one of the many problems today’s system of higher education confronts: self-destructive nonsense posing as expertise. Even worse, folks believe it. So of course universities now are tying to find people to rig the system in their own favor. Problem is the whole system is ridiculous.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      How some reasons why its ridiculous and dangerous.

      Do you do a cost benefit analysis of a system that is totally broken? Where all but a few learn nothing or close to nothing in undergraduate school. See academically adrift. A system where most research is driven not by a quest for truth but an affirmation of tenured professors ideology and/or self interest and/or angst. Where peer review punishes any views different from rigidity held ideology. A system where costs per student and per activity are hidden from public view and misstated to force benefits and other peoples money into some parts of the curriculum while punishing and blowing up altogether other peoples education, including many disciplines of former study that now no longer educate but instead entertain or promote grievance or political advantage.

      A system that produces little or no education at all so there is a great shortage of qualified people in most fields of employment. A system of learning with no standards of performance, or coherence at all, save that of keeping students tied into their seats long enough to suck up their money while diverting most of that money away from that students education and shoving it instead towards feeding the voracious needs of tenured faculty and university administrators who refuse to teach students, only use them.

      And of course there is all the evidence happening every day and plain to see right in front of our noses.

      For example, The WSJ recently reported that well educated humanities students were most valued by first class high paying employers if any such well educated humanities students could be found. But finding them was increasingly rare. Thence they were precious commodities wherever found as the shortage of honest to goodness educated college and university graduates of any sort was reaching critical proportions, now indeed a national emergency.

      Here I believe that the base problem is how the system today is set up to fail. The current system of higher education demands that university Research be a war with, and ultimately destroy, the teaching the students, and other subjects they must master.

      Indeed today’s system is set up to almost insure that the ever increasing demands of research destroy the integrity and viability of all the other components of a students education, those critical teaching and learning experiences and tools that students need if they are to have a good chance at a real education: to find out who they are, who they want to strive to be, what they valued at their core, and how to go about the vital task of building an examined life worth living. One that can give their life and their work that meaning that can only grow out of their own core convictions that they have settled upon for themselves after their own hard work, instead of the those dictated to them by the neurotic ideologies of their professors.

      Today’s system of higher education also insures that university Research will fail totally, collapse in upon itself, driven to absolute corruption without the check of the Humanities and a healthy society outside and apart from research.

      So, for example, we need to toss out the “Psychobabble” that today fake professors use to eat the Humanities alive each day as surely as the Taliban blow up artifacts of ancient civilizations such as the Syrian City of Palmyra. At the very same time we must restore the Humanities to their rightful and critical roll in American education as these Humanities are timeless, the very foundation and living lifeblood of our Western Civilization, or all our labors will be lost.

      See more comments taken from Business and Computer Science Majors are the Biggest Bargains in Higher Ed posted here on April 27, 2017.

      1. The “value proposition” of higher-ed has two dimensions — cost and value. I have focused mainly on the cost side of the equation, seeking an explanation of why tuition, fees, room and board have run out of control. You are focused on the value side of the equation — what are students actually getting for the money. That is an equally valid concern. I wish you would repackage some of your comments into “front page” material, i.e., as full-fledged posts on the blog.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      For more on why these computer rankings of schools are highly misleading, inflicting far more harm than good, consider this culled from comments here found at “Online Education Marches On” posted on May 2,2017:

      “Dennis J. Frailey, a long time expert on measuring performance in the US high tech industry and former university professor commented in a letter to the editor in yesterdays Wall Street Journal that:

      “The problem with many measurements (used to evaluate student and institutional performance in higher education) is that they induce behavior modification that achieve the metrics but often don’t achieve the goals. I’m particularly uncomfortable with the use of ‘graduation rates’ as a measure of academic performance … the effect of such a measure is to put pressure on faculty to give higher grades and, in particular, to pass students who don’t deserve to pass. We end up with higher graduation rates, resulting in a large number of individuals who have the degree but not the knowledge and skills the degree is supposed to imply.”

      Mr. Frailey went on to observe that:

      “There are better ways to measure academic performance … (And) the more important issue we should be discussing is how our education system is supposed to make up for poor attitude, behavior and motivation, usually resulting from cultural influences and, at times, poor parenting ..”

      I agree with Mr. Failey, but go a big step further. Today’s cultural decline is part of the problem that universities face, but I suggest that actions by universities over the past several decades have fueled much of the nation’s cultural decline. That indeed our entire system of higher education is geared to undermine student “attitudes, behaviors and motivation.”

      Thus, for only one of many examples, government and private ranking systems that grade student retention and graduation rates generate the reverse consequences that they are intended to achieve. In practical effect they demand that schools never give a student a low or failing grade and so never seriously test or otherwise challenge students’ academic performance on campus. Instead our schools strongly encourage the disinterested and failing student to stick around, wasting his or her and everyone’s time and money paying for an education that he or she the student never gets.

      So today, no matter what, many students, if they bother to show up at all, graduate with high grades. This keeps the schools ratings high and coffers full. And just as surely this system turns far too many students into wastrels, while it falsely inflates the university’s national ratings, ofttimes into a ‘preeminent educational institutions”.

      Indeed, given that a BA degree from most universities, including now likely a growing majority of those handed out by the elite institutions, are next to worthless insofar as concerns substantive learning, people are wising up finally. This dawn of truth has taken too long but its now arrived.

      And, of course, the universities in search of ratings, more revenues, and ballooning research, have been happily going along for years lowering the quality of their undergraduate educations. Why? Because it keeps kids fat, happy and uneducated for reasons deemed in the schools self interest.

      For instance, most tenure or tenure track professors do not want to teach students courses of substance and grade them for learning anything of substance anyway. All this teaching and testing of students takes too much work on the professors’ part and on the students part too. And it would interfere with those professors research and networking activities, while it makes too many students and their parents unhappy because it requires hard work, grading, and failure on students part. This sparks complains against the professors, risking their job, tenure and entire future.

      So, to avoid all this hard work and risk, a system has been built that gives most all of those in control what they each really want, a scam education of students. For example one that gives high grades for little more than showing up, while entertaining students with Country Club facilities and bad attitudes.

      This is poison. It destroys the value of most students degrees in terms of learning. It also operates like a Ponzi scheme. It ruins their education while it keeps students in their seats learning next to nothing but bad habits and attitudes for ever long periods of time, while they pay ever increasing costs for what tends to hobble their future.

      But now these Scam education regimes are being exposed nighty on the news, and in the newspapers. Universities are being exposed as dysfunctional institutions creating generations of dysfunctional students. Kid who have learned little of value and have also lost their ability to cope with the real world, and cannot act as a responsible well educated adult, because they have never been required too, but pampered instead.

      Employers are figuring this out now. Namely that now even degrees from highly select universities and colleges. Today a student who just got a BA from an elite or highly select college proves only that 4 years ago he or she got good SAT scores. But it does not prove proof that student got anything out of your undergraduate degree that holds any value to the employer, and any assurances of the graduates future success, unless it is a STEM degree from a highly respected program.

      So hiring practices are beginning to change. Employers have seen too many uneducated and ill prepared kids coming out of the “best schools’ along with everyone else coming out of the less select schools.

      There are exceptions and caveats here, but these are the growing trends.

      This is corruption of the highest order. It is an national scandal. It is deeply unfair to everyone but most particularly to the student, and those who pay the students bills for the promise of an education, but get in return an uneducated wastrel instead.

      And its happening to all our students, including the most talented, and those who otherwise would likely be the most motivated, irrespective of SAT scores or personal background growing up.

  3. OK, I work in high tech, but this one still makes my head spin. Still, it is good to see a couple of Virginia schools ranked high here.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    U.S News & World Report, its rating systems and others like it, have reeked enormous damage on America’s system of higher education. These ratings prey upon the best and worst instincts of parents who only want “the best” for their kids, but are grossly mislead by these ratings as to what the Best in Higher Education really is, how to find the best, and how to best to take advantage of what is best for their child.

    Indeed these U.S News & World Report style rating systems reek havoc and damage most everything and everybody they touch in higher education. Whether it be students, parents, taxpayers, college Boards of Trustees, or administrators and faculties of all kinds, and Alumni.

    So these rating systems prey also upon the worst and best instincts of colleges and universities too as they ignite vicious cycles of bad habits by all concerned, including mission creep, and lost of focus and lost of mission, while these ratings drive costs sky high and drive down the quality of education that students receive at the vast majority of “selective” American institutions irrespective of their rank.

    How does this work? How has it has happened over time?

    US News & World Report’s annual rankings first appeared in 1983. By then the quality of undergraduate education in America was already in a free fall, and had been since the late 1960’s. The authority and control of Administrators to maintain standards of teaching and learning in their institutions had been in collapse since the mid to late 1960s.

    This collapse was concurrent with the rise of the radical left in American society, including faculty during these times of social and cultural upheaval generally, and on campuses in particular. (Recall 1968 Democratic convention, the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), and Jesuit Berrigan Bros, for a few of many examples)

    Much of this vast cultural shift within US higher education came to stay, ferment, and grow into a force of dramatic impact. This was fueled by the rise of post modernism – relativism, deconstruction, and critical cultural studies – that was well on its way by the 1980s to destroying traditional teaching of undergraduate Liberal Arts and Sciences on our campuses. The Western Canon, the best of that body of scholarship, writings, and traditions built over the space of 2000 years was being trashed and discarded, replaced by an every growing hodgepodge of courses called “NEW KNOWLEDGE. This stuff over time morphed into angry imaginings of maladjusted college professors using their axes to grind up the Canons of Civilizations on the altar of suddenly discovered grievances and injustices claimed to have been inflicted by Western Culture for 2000 years, that oppressed and abused peoples of other races, genders, ethic groups, cultures, classes, and others however slightly different. However valid originally, these claims and the theories offer to validate them, has reached the point of parody on the level of the absurd, and obviously so.

    These also allowed professors to take on the mantel of all knowing Gods. And this rampant claptrap fueled an explosion of research, and research papers, these professors taught on the undergraduate level by the late 1970s, tripling and quadrupling the time faculty devoted to research and the spawning of New Knowledge courses that poisoned undergraduate level education at many American Universities. As this research and its teachings become ascendant and ultimately dominant, the teaching of students, the academic demands placed on students and their learning in colleges and universities, plummeted. Student skills in reading and writing, and in critical analysis and problem solving, began a long and drastic decline that continues to this day. So did homework study and testing of classroom learning decline, along with in the quality of courses taught in undergraduate classrooms.

    Unfortunately, the US News and World Report Rating System put these bad habits on steroids beginning in the 1980s. The enormous power these magazine rating systems came to wield over the buying habits of students and parents (where students applied and how they formulated their first, second, third, fourth, and back up choices) put the students and their desires in the driver’s seat. School administrators and faculty abdicated their authority over students as they competed over students to maintain their ratings over competitors. A costly arms race ensued. This turned the students into commodities. Their every every whim and desire had to be catered to if the colleges and universities were to attract students and keep them happy once there. For now, their student’s Advance Placement and SAT scores, and their application and acceptance and retaining rate, were critically important to an institutions national, regional, and local rating that could make or break a institutions success or failure in the market place. This destroyed the faculty’s ability of enforce educational and learning standards on students, even if they had wanted to.

    Now a professors main job went from teaching and challenging students to learn to entertaining students and keeping them happy, including giving them the most pain free ways of graduating with the least amount work, failure or effort. So yet again reading, writing, studying, serious testing and grades, went out the window in most courses but hard sciences, and entertainment and junk courses exploded throughout most college curriculum.

    What happened was that a peace treaty was signed between the school and the students so that each got what they wanted. The student got graduated and good grades with the least amount of work and the most amount of fun and recreation, while the faculty got ever more time away from teaching and grading students, and ever more time for faculty research and development of professor’s businesses, chasing grants, getting outside clients, and burnishing their professional chops while turning over ever more teaching, grading, and advising to adjunct professors, graduate students, and post graduate students, the vast majority of which are low salaried contract employee with little long future or security at the school.

    This gig, its big bundle of bad habits, went through the roof after the year 2000. This was fueled by the explosion of federal student loans and grants, and the vast increases in the federal funding of STEM research, and other projects that the federal government had an interest in, like defense, global warming, health care, alleged sexual abuse on campus, you name it.

    This only strengthened the hand of the Magazine rating power game that now forces Colleges and Universities to play its games, and to meet its demands, as well as the demands of the federal government, the students, their parents, the Alumni, and state governments, and big private interest investors and funders.

    And so yet again this has ignited highly expensive arms races among ALL THE SELECTIVE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES as they must built ever more expensive “five Star” facilities and student bodies to complete with one another and impress their many masters, whether in a race for a TOP TEN ranking in the Nation, or between 140 and 160 in the nation.

    Meanwhile, the fate of students is not to be entertained and catered to. Hence, all all the whiners and complainers, fragile and fearful or incompetent but dominating, until they fall apart when challenged. See for example the U Tubes screaming girl at Yale.

    For more, see comments to “What’s Driving up the Cost of Attendance at Virginia Colleges” posted Nov. 24, 2017 that can be found at:


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