Ranking Cars and Colleges

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The process is similar, but car comparisons make more sense.

By Mark J. Drozdowski

A 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, I’m a respectable Penn graduate, Harvard doctoral student and university administrator. There’s no place in my vocabulary for words like horsepower and torque.
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 calendars–the motif was consistently employed.
    Then, one sunny Saturday found me flipping through brochures at a Lamborgh … er, Honda dealership, and it dawned on me: I’m not a nutcase, after all. Studying cars reminded me of my primary passion: colleges and universities. I’m a doctoral student; my field is higher education. I got hooked on that subject the same way–reading 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 I’m 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 product–but 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 life’s most expensive propositions. Moreover, both your college and your car to some extent define who you are. People can form opinions–favorable or otherwise–based on what you drive or where you went. Associating ourselves with certain names tends to brand us, whether or not the stereotypes fit.
    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 Royce–the 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 Hampshire’s 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), I’d 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.” We’re 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, Nissan’s 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 car–consistently 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.
    We’re 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 here’s where the gearheads can teach us higher-education mavens a lesson.
    When evaluating models (Car and Driver calls such articles “comparos”), they do so according to peer group–that 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.Wouldn’t 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 student’s college choices boil down to CalTech, Dartmouth and Minnesota? They’re on the same list. If I’m interested in Dartmouth, I might also apply to Amherst and Williams, which aren’t 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. I’d line up schools whose applicants overlap with each other, then I’d crunch the numbers, squealing with joy, and start to maneuver institutions into their rightful order. But I’d venture beyond the stats and explore each school’s “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?
    I’d be careful not to mix fruits in my comparos. I wouldn’t lump rural schools with urban schools, large ones with tiny ones, publics with privates. I’d make CalTech and MIT bang heads. I’d have Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State go at it. Swarthmore, Haverford, Davidson and Middlebury would duke it out. Nope, I’d 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 don’t 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 “That’s It!” Forget the rankings, the numbers, even my opinions–venerable as they are. Visit the campus and absorb its life. In other words, take a test drive.

Mark J. Drozdowski C’90 is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and author of the Insider’s 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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