What do Planning School Rankings Really Mean?

Lance Freeman's picture

Last Year Planetizen published their first Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs. The Guide includes basic information about the programs (location, specializations, faculty, etc) and an overall ranking of the schools and ranking by specialization. It is these rankings that are the source of much consternation within the planning academy.

If my conversation with colleagues and discussions on the PLANET listserve which serves planning academics is any guide most planning professors strongly oppose the notion of ranking planning schools. In this way planning academics echo the growing resistance to the well known ranking of undergraduate schools by U.S. News and World Report. School rankings are usually criticized for two reasons. First, rankings are misleading in the sense that they misrepresent the nature of education. Education involves an interaction between the school, the student and classmates. What might be best for one student may not be best for another. A professor might inspire one student but bore to tears another. A student may find her classmates especially stimulating or hard to get along with. In this way rankings are misleading because they cannot possibly tell each student where they would best fit in or get the best education. Planetizen's rankings appear to be based primarily on reputation. Clearly the perceived reputation of a school provides only minimal information as to how a particular student might be educated there.

A second criticism of rankings is that they often induce school administrators to attempt to game the rankings in order to improve their own position. For example, the U.S. News and World report has typically assigned considerable weight to the selectivity of the school. Schools can easily increase their selectivity by encouraging applications from applicants they are likely to reject. A school that improved its ranking using this tactic can hardly said to be providing a better education despite its rise in the rankings.

A third criticism that is specific to Planetizen's rankings is the lack of transparency in how the rankings were calculated. This lack of transparency is inconsistent with inclusive collaborative planning approaches taught in most planning programs where openness and inclusion is stressed. It should be conceded, however, that by not revealing its methodology one of the key criticisms of rankings, that they encourage administrators to focus on improving their rankings, is rendered moot.

So what should a prospective planning student make of rankings such as the one produced by the publisher of this blog? They should not interpret the rankings as a precise measure of the quality of planning education offered by a particular program. There is no way a third party could quantify with any degree of precision the quality of education they are likely to obtain at various schools. This assumes there is even agreement on what "quality of education" is.

Nonetheless, reputational rankings do provide some useful information. They do give the student some sense of how others in the planning community view the program. People's perceptions of a particular program might be outdated, overly influenced by the reputation of the planning program's university, or just plain wrong. But perceptions do count. A student from graduating from a particular program will be judged, in part, on the reputation of her school.

So a prospective student should take the reputation of a program into consideration when considering a school. Reputation is not necessarily indicative of quality of education, but it is suggestive of how others will perceive their credential. Planning is not a profession where one's pedigree necessarily determines one's career trajectory, however, so students should not attach too much weight to national rankings. Indeed, if students are planning to use their planning degree to go into another profession the reputation of the larger university will probably be more important than that of the planning program.

In sum, reputational rankings cannot possible tell a student about the quality of education they will receive at a particular school. But they can still provide useful, albeit limited, information that a student should consider when choosing a school.

Lance Freeman is an associate professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.



Christian Madera's picture

More about Planetizen's guide and rankings effort

As a follow-up to this excellent post, the editors of Planetizen have published their views on the issue of rankings, and provide details regarding Planetizen's efforts to address some of the criticisms that Professor Freeman mentions above.

You can read the post at:

Excellent points...

I think you make an excellent point about the need for the student to find the right fit rather than base the choice of a planning school solely on reputation. Education is about how far your academic experience takes you, and some schools are better fits than others. Ultimately, it all depends on how well the school prepared the planner, because the planner's performance on the job will then decide how far that planner gets in his or her career, not the reputation of the planning school.

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