Tony Dobrowolski: Why this country ranks things



We love to either rank or rate things in this country.

Businesses, colleges, sports teams, vacation spots, sales of expensive homes, income levels there's always a list.

I guess it makes us feel good to know where everything stands. Puts things in perspective, creates a sense of order, cuts down on the chaos.

But what do these rankings or ratings really mean?

Is one business really better than another in the same field because its earnings were a
little higher last year?

Did Alabama's football team deserve to lose its number one ranking last year because Auburn pulled off a once-in-a-lifetime miracle after time had run out on the final play of the last regular season game?

Is a suburban high school district better than its urban counterpart because it's ranked higher based on student test scores?

Are politicians really as good or bad as the polls say they are?

Viewed through the narrow prism of a ranking or rating system the answers are yes. But there's so much more to consider. Rankings can provide us with a snapshot of what's going on, but not the entire picture.

Some rankings and ratings are more important than others. For example, it's important to know the income levels of each community to determine which areas need aid and which don't.

But some rankings aren't as important as others. Take the ranking of colleges, for example.

Williams College recently earned the top spot in Forbes Magazine's seventh annual list of the country's best colleges. The rankings are based on several academic and fiscal metrics, which is all well
and good.

But is Williams really a better college than second-place Stanford or third-place Swarthmore or fourth-place Princeton? It's almost impossible to quantify that. Stanford, for instance, was first in last year's rankings, while Princeton was first in 2012. Are either of those schools significantly different now than they were a year or two ago? All of these schools have excellent academic credentials. How do you rank them first, second or third?

The rankings might catch the attention of prospective students, but I think what matters to students more is how each school fits them academically, socially or, perhaps, athletically.

Some colleges, like Virginia Tech, have received big enrollment boosts based on the success of one of their athletic teams, but none of that really applies for schools on the top 100 list (Virginia Tech isn't on it).


Rankings are used all the time in business. The stock market is more of a rating system than a ranking system, because firms are ranked alphabetically by their symbols, not by the percentage that their stock may have fluctuated that day. But this system does help stockholders keep track of their earnings, and whether to buy or sell them.

The advent of online trading has changed the game a little bit, I would say, because now you can track the status of a stock immediately in real time. Some might say this type of system makes it easier to buy or sell stock when playing the market, but not me. It's too much of a gamble. Stock trading isn't a video game. When it comes to investing, I would take slow and steady over instant gratification any day.

Ranking sports teams is probably the most popular form of this exercise. Some followers of college basketball or football follow the top 25 rankings religiously when their seasons are in session. But these rankings are also flawed.

USA Today's Top25 college football poll comes out on Sunday night, a day after most of the weekend's games have been played. Even with modern technology, do you think that gives all of the 62 coaches who participate in that poll enough time to accurately assess every team? That's almost impossible.

Those who don't have the time to watch every game often vote for teams based on reputation or how they beat their opponent that week, which is one reason coaches of good teams tend to run up the score when the opposition is much weaker. Does this give us an accurate picture of which team is better or worse? I don't think so.

But it does allow us to put things somewhat in perspective. And that's what we use our ratings and rankings for.

Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at


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