There’s always some controversy and bickering, but US News and World Report seems to have come up with a pretty good algorithm for their rankings of top universities. Of course, Princeton Review, Forbes, and Bloomberg Businessweek probably think theirs rankings are better, but that’s because they think their algorithms are better.
What I don’t get is that for traditional rankings of Jewish life on a college, there are no algorithms – the only factor considered is the number of Jews attending the college.
This isn’t only true for the “authoritative” Jewish rankings put out by Hillel (I organized the data visually here) (last updated December 2015); for Orthodox students – the sole determining factor is how many Orthodox students are there, and lists of such numbers are compiled and distributed. And the Conservative Movement’s Ramah College Network just came out with their “Top Ramah Colleges”. I thought would be a ranking of which colleges had the best infrastructure for Conservative Jews, or the most camp reunions, or the best leadership opportunity for religious Jews. — nope, just which ones have the highest numbers of Ramah staff.
There are a lot of problems with this trend and here are a few:
Most importantly, the number of Jewish students has almost nothing to do with the number of active Jewish students or the size of the Jewish community, let alone the quality and depth of the Jewish community (which should be the subject of another blog post). You could have a school with 500 Jews and a really active and vibrant Jewish community, and a school with 5,000 Jews and barely any Jewish community (and I know schools which fit both those descriptions). You could even (and often do) have a school with a lot of Orthodox day school students and/or Ramah staff but a weak Jewish community, or the converse. Shouldn’t rankings include something about what Jewish/religious/Orthodox/Ramah-friendly life is actually like??
Secondly, where do these numbers come from? The technical answer is that the data (for number of Jews) is provided by Hillel and published in the Union for Reform Judaism’s magazine. The real answer, as one Hillel professional who helps compile the numbers put it to me, is that campus staff put their finger in the air and come up with a number. It’s somewhat based on enrollment demographics and the number of students who show up to Hillel, but it’s somewhere between an estimate and a wild guess. For Orthodox students, it’s usually a rough estimate combining Orthodox day school students (although no one knows those exact numbers either) and the number of students involved in various levels of the Orthodox community. Which is all fine, but a vague and subjective estimate that varies drastically shouldn’t be the only or main factor on which colleges are ranked for Jewish life. (Ramah’s numbers seem to be concrete and consistent, which is nice.)
Third of all, it promotes this vicious cycle of Jews applying to colleges because they have a lot of Jews, because a lot of Jews applied there, because they had a lot of Jews… This is bad because high school students won’t know which colleges they should be looking at, since they will merely be pushed (by their guidance counselors, parents, friends) towards the popular destinations. This ends up hurting colleges which are ripe for growth, but are merely missing more students – and there’s no way for them to break out and grow. Especially for religious students, you get this chicken-and-egg scenario where high schools won’t send their kids to X because X doesn’t have enough religious students (because the high schools won’t send their kids to X) – but maybe X has great resources and should be a good option.
A fourth issue is that colleges lose the ability or incentive to pinpoint and work on the real factors in building a Jewish community. Colleges are overt in their efforts to attract more Jewish students (and advertise on the list of top Jewish populations), when really they should be working to improve Jewish life and resources on their campus – that will probably get students to come by themselves! By promoting the number of Jewish students, we’re confusing our suitors (and ourselves) and losing valuable leverage to actually improve Jewish life mixing up
A fifth issue that arises is that resources are then invested in those colleges which have the largest population – which makes sense from a numerical perspective, but not from an analysis of where the real needs and gap exist. In fact, maybe it’s those colleges which have fewer students which could really use some help – either in recruiting more students (because who’d want to go to a college which doesn’t have enough Jewish students) or in terms of extra support. So profiling NYU and Michigan and Maryland as number #1 is great for them, but they don’t need more Jewish students or resources.
I know that if you don’t have any or enough Jews then you can’t have a Jewish community, but I would say that it’s merely necessary, but not nearly sufficient. And numbers are sometimes indicative; maybe the fact that there are no Jewish students is a good indication that there are no opportunities, resources, or infrastructure for Jewish life. But correlation does not imply causation – there are plenty of colleges with all the right resources (or enough of them) but not so many Jewish students, or plenty of Jewish students but no resources, or plenty of Jewish students and resources but no Jewish life. It’s complex – there are different layers and factors and causes, but that’s no excuse for coming up with rankings using just one simple determinant. Or at least don’t call it a ranking or “The Best Colleges” — call it “A page with some numbers on it”. But why can’t we have a ranking based on real, complex algorithms that take into account various different relevant factors? And if a different demographic disagreed or thought it wasn’t best suited to their needs, let them make their own rankings!
Well, that’s what I did. I compiled a list of different resources for religious students, and specifically (although not exclusively) Orthodox students – kosher food, Orthodox community, religious/rabbinic leadership, minyanim, learning opportunities, student leadership, and yes – the number of Jewish students. And after a lot of research on 150+ colleges, I came up with rankings. Is it completely thorough and accurate? Probably not. Is it the ideal ranking for Conservative students? Nope. Will some people not like it? Of course. But it’s a start – and my contribution to elevating the discourse of Jewish college rankings, so that Jewish campus life and Jewish students’ lives can be improved. The next blog posts will hopefully get more into all of this, but feel free to leave comments below with any thoughts or questions!
*We have started compiling information about Conservative life on campus and hope to publicize that soon as well – if anyone wants to help with that project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org