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Ranking Cars and Colleges
is similar, but car comparisons make more sense.
By Mark J. Drozdowski
funny thing happened to me while shopping for a new car: I became a bona-fide
"gearhead" one of those car afficionados whose passion
reveals itself approximately 15 seconds into any conversation. Only recently
have I developed the courage to admit my secret. After all, Im a
respectable Penn graduate, Harvard doctoral student and university administrator.
Theres no place in my vocabulary for words like horsepower and
My descent began with an innocent perusal
of a car magazine during the early stages of browsing. I was smitten.
Before I knew it, my magazine rack was cluttered with back issues of Car
and Driver, Road and Track and Motor Trend instead of Lingua
Franca and Change. I grew an impressive list of auto-related
bookmarks on my Web browser. Screen savers, desktop wallpapers, stuff-a-day
calendarsthe motif was consistently employed.
Then, one sunny Saturday
found me flipping through brochures at a Lamborgh ... er, Honda dealership,
and it dawned on me: Im not a nutcase, after all. Studying cars
reminded me of my primary passion: colleges and universities. Im
a doctoral student; my field is higher education. I got hooked on that
subject the same wayreading objective descriptions of institutions,
comparing and contrasting them, exploring subtle differences in depth.
Before applying to colleges and, later, graduate schools, I learned more
than I needed to know. Now Im doing the same thing with cars. So,
as I see it, my two interests are actually quite similar.
Higher education and automobiles
are commodities. One is a process; the other, a tangible productbut
they both involve buyers and sellers. With autos and schools, consumers
choose between many makes and models and each involves significant cost.
After a home, a car and a college education are among lifes most
expensive propositions. Moreover, both your college and your car to some
extent define who you are. People can form opinionsfavorable or
otherwisebased on what you drive or where you went. Associating
ourselves with certain names tends to brand us, whether or not the stereotypes
Parallels between specific
universities and car makes can be drawn based on their reputations. I
would posit, for example, that the average person on the street reacts
to Harvard as they do to Rolls Roycethe names invoke
images of wealth, privilege and tradition. Accordingly, I might pair Yale
and Bentley (following the Harvard/Rolls marriage), Princeton and Jaguar
(effete snobbery?) and Stanford and BMW (West Coast chic and athletic).
Yugos equate to New Hampshires Franconia College; each enjoyed a
rather ephemeral existence.
In keeping with perceived
social status and cost factors, domestic cars could align with public
institutions; imports, with private. Of course, the ultimate commingling
of the two is the ubiquitous rear-window decal proudly displaying the
alma mater of the driver, and effectively enabling him or her to declare,
"I attended Columbia and I drive a Porsche," while illegally
passing you on a country road.
If pressed to link Penn with
a particular make (I wish someone would ask), Id probably offer
the following: First, using my public/ private formula, it must be an
import. Since Penn is an illustrious member of the Ivy League, the likely
comparison is with an upscale Japanese or European brand. The latter,
though, tend to have a certain snob appeal unbefitting a school that,
as Edwin Slosson quipped in 1910, had the "democracy of a street
car." Were down to three candidates. Lexus, a fine make indeed,
is too conservative; throughout history, Penn has continually distinguished
itself as an innovator. Ditto for the Infiniti, Nissans upmarket
cousin. That leaves my choice: Acura. While certainly as sound mechanically,
Acuras never quite achieved the acclaim bestowed upon their brethren.
The line, however, does feature one stellar name the $84,000 NSX
sports carconsistently rated top in its class. Some enthusiasts
even speak of the car as if it were somehow its own brand, as in "I
drive an NSX. I bought it five years after graduating from Wharton."
Beyond the sociological ramifications,
statistics make it easy to distinguish automotive and collegiate rivals.
Here again, I find a perverse pleasure in examining the minutiae separating
models, much as I had when considering universities. Instead of acceptance
and retention rates, average SAT scores and financial-aid figures, I now
cite zero-to-60 and quarter-mile times, unladen curb weights and coefficients
of drag. Such figures permit easy comparisons and, ultimately, rankings.
Were all familiar with
the annual U.S. News & World Report college and university
rankings issue. Well, auto magazines rank cars just about every month.
But heres where the gearheads can teach us higher-education mavens
When evaluating models (Car
and Driver calls such articles "comparos"), they do so according
to peer groupthat is, they compare those vehicles an individual
is most likely to choose among when making a purchase. A recent issue,
for instance, featured a "$25,000 sport sedan shootout" among
an Audi, Saab and three other fine specimens.Wouldnt it be fun and
useful to treat higher education the same way?
The U.S. News comparos
lump dissimilar institutions together under broad rubrics like "national
universities" or "national liberal arts colleges," leaving
it to parents and prospective students to figure out relative quality
through a numerical maze. What high-school students college choices
boil down to CalTech, Dartmouth and Minnesota? Theyre on the same
list. If Im interested in Dartmouth, I might also apply to Amherst
and Williams, which arent even in the same category, according to
U.S. News. Or, if my picks include the University of Rochester,
NYU, Boston College, Syracuse and Villanova Universities, does it help
me to know that the first four rank 29th, 35th, 36th and 47th, respectively,
among national universities and that Villanova comes in at number one
in the "Northern Universities" category? Probably not much.
The U.S. News method
is akin to ranking all sedans in one list. The Audi that won the $25,000
shoot-out might finish 41st among all sedans, but so what? Heck, it might
be worth starting my own publication to evaluate colleges the right way.
Id line up schools whose applicants overlap with each other, then
Id crunch the numbers, squealing with joy, and start to maneuver
institutions into their rightful order. But Id venture beyond the
stats and explore each schools "inner child." Subjective
impressions can be ranked, too; car mags even deduct points for hard seats.
How modern is the field house? Are the dorms cozy? Do classroom ceilings
leak? Does the mascot inspire you?
Id be careful not to
mix fruits in my comparos. I wouldnt lump rural schools with urban
schools, large ones with tiny ones, publics with privates. Id make
CalTech and MIT bang heads. Id have Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio
State go at it. Swarthmore, Haverford, Davidson and Middlebury would duke
it out. Nope, Id never pit a Civic against a Dodge pickup.
After crowning the victor
and poking fun at the losers, my advice would be simple: Rankings are
essentially useless. They dont reveal the true essence of a car
or a college. You need to hear it, feel it, sense it. The right match
almost always results in a visceral "Thats It!" Forget
the rankings, the numbers, even my opinionsvenerable as they are.
Visit the campus and absorb its life. In other words, take a test drive.
Mark J. Drozdowski C90 is a doctoral candidate
at Harvard University and author of the Insiders Guide to Graduate
Programs in Education (Simon & Schuster, 1997). He drives an Acura
Integra and is considering another. Or maybe the Audi ...
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 7/6/99