Planning Schools: To Rank, Or Not To Rank?

Christian Madera's picture

Professor Lance Freeman's recent post about Planetizen's rankings of graduate planning programs does an excellent job of summarizing some of the thorniest problems with school rankings. The editors of Planetizen certainly agree with Professor Freeman when he states that rankings cannot accurately predict whether a particular program will provide a particular student with the type of education he or she would deem best. There are far too many individual factors involved, and any student who makes their decision primarily on the basis of such rankings would be doing themselves a great disservice. This point is also the reason why most of the 142 pages of the 2007 Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs consist of detailed profiles of programs -- not rankings.

However, we continue to believe, as Professor Freeman also acknowledges, that rankings do provide a useful measure of comparison for students who are evaluating a graduate program of study in planning -- something that is likely to be the largest single investment in their educational career. Therefore, we are planning to publish a new edition of the Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs in the spring. In addition, we're working to improve our rankings process to help address some the concerns that Professor Freeman and others have raised.

Why Planetizen Ranks

Since being launched in 2000, Planetizen has served as a medium for people interested in the field of urban planning and development to share and discuss information. Over the past seven years, our growth and success has been firmly rooted in our effort to provide a nonpartisan perspective on the current state of planning, and to facilitate the exchange of ideas that ultimately serve to improve the planning process and the communities that it shapes.

Over the years, we've received numerous requests for information about the relative strengths of graduate programs in urban planning from prospective students. These requests often cited the lack of any current rankings of such programs (the last was done by the infamous Gourman Report in 1997). In response to these inquiries, and seeing that many other professions -- Law, Medicine, Engineering and even Architecture -- feature regularly updated rankings of graduate programs, we endeavored to create a guide to graduate planning programs for prospective students that included rankings of the various programs.

We recognize that the issue of ranking educational institutions is not without controversy. There's no doubt that education programs have many factors that are nuanced and difficult if not impossible to measure. Opinions differ about what constitutes a measure of quality or excellence in a program. And any method for constructing a ranking will be contested by those who favor an alternative method. In short, no rankings system is perfect.

However, when created and interpreted with an understanding of these limitations, rankings can and do provide useful insight for students looking to determine which program is best for them. Such scores are frequently incorporated into most complex decision-making processes. Universities themselves use grade point averages and standardized test scores as part of their calculus to admit students. To dismiss the desire for similarly succinct measures of comparison for educational programs hardly seems fair.

As such, our continuing objective is to publish a guide and rankings that includes the information that prospective students have told us is important to them when evaluating various programs of study. This includes an array of information on the relative strengths and qualities of graduate programs in urban planning primarily contained in detailed profiles of each program -- and supplemented with rankings based on various criteria, including reputation.

Improving The Rankings

Of course, we know that we're not perfect, and have always welcomed cooperation and partnership to improve the results of this endeavor. As an example of this openness, Planetizen has recently completed a series of discussions with a special committee of representatives from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP). This exchange was intended to help address a number of concerns that many planning educators and programs have voiced about our Guide and rankings (including those that Professor Freeman raised).

These discussions resulted in a number of changes to our process that we hope will make the rankings published in our forthcoming guide less contentious with planning educators and program administrators. Specifically, Planetizen has agreed to be more transparent with its data collection process and methodology -- and to publish the details about our rankings criteria. While we recognize that this does provide an opportunity for some programs to "game" the system, we decided that the benefits of being open about our methods outweigh this risk.

The full details of these discussions -- along with all of the proposed changes -- can be found at

We owe many thanks to the members of the ACSP special committee members for lending their time and expertise during these discussions. Their constructive feedback and cooperative approach made this process particularly rewarding.

In the end, we hope our ongoing efforts to publish useful information and comparisons about graduate planning programs will result in expanded interest in planning by larger numbers of students, while also helping to provide the programs themselves with additional information on how they compare with each other. We trust that students, planning programs, and the public will recognize both the value and limitations of any rankings, and will incorporate them as one of many pieces of information they use to make decisions that are best for them.

We continue to welcome any comments and suggestions to help improve our guide and the valuable information it provides.


Christian Madera was managing editor of Planetizen from 2006 to 2008.


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