Numbers game

Rankings can’t tell the true value of a college

Sep 29, 2014 by

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It started with college sports. Fans wanted to know how teams that never played each other stacked up. So they took a poll, counted the votes, made a list and argued about it. And if you can judge who’s No. 1 in football, why not do the same for the whole college experience?

Thus was born the annual college rankings, derided by critics for claiming to do the impossible even as they are trumpeted by colleges across the land.

Just as you can’t put a price tag on the value of a college education, you can’t judge the value of a college by a number.

U.S. News & World Report started it all about 30 years ago, and now other publications play the numbers game too. If a college didn’t do so well in U.S. News, maybe Washington Monthly or Forbes gave it a good grade in a category like “best bang for the buck.”

Mennonite colleges do pretty well on these lists. The high-water mark might have been four years ago when Hesston came in at No. 2 on Washington Monthly’s ranking of two-year colleges based on “student success,” as defined by graduation rates and a survey of learning habits.

There is excellence at our church colleges. Some of it can be expressed in statistics. But the things that matter most can’t be boiled down to a slot on a list.

You can’t quantify the value of a changed life, and shaping lives is what Mennonite colleges do, writes Merrill Ewert, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, in Christian Leader, the U.S. Mennonite Brethren magazine.

“The word that best captures our denominational schools is ‘transformational,’ ” Ewert says. During his presidency, students often told him how thankful they were to be at FPU because it had changed their lives. At Cornell, where Ewert previously taught, he never heard a student say that.

“A college education should not be considered an expense,” Ewert writes. “It’s an investment in people that affirms our God-given capacity to learn and grow.”

It’s also an investment in the church’s future. A Mennonite student who attends a Mennonite college is far more likely to be active in a Mennonite congregation as an adult.

How well do our congregations support our colleges? Do our youth hear current students and alumni tell about the benefits of being part of a faith-forming community during these crucial years? Do we encourage our youth to choose a church college — or at least to check out the financial aid package, which could be a pleasant surprise? Do we give enough to congregational scholarship funds to offer a real incentive and affirmation?

The Mennonite college mission extends beyond transmitting Anabaptist values to our own youth. Goshen College professor John D. Roth writes in Teaching That Transforms (Herald Press, 2011) that Mennonite education is “moving toward a mission-oriented identity”: sharing Anabaptist faith with students from diverse backgrounds. Mennonite colleges bring the Anabaptist view of Christian faith to people our congregations will never reach. You can’t assign a number to something like that.


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