Are colleges like wines? (On US News, Wine Advocate, and blind trials — reblog)

The US News college rankings came out this week. King’s jumped up a few places, which is good, I suppose. A couple years ago and in a different venue, I wrote this, about whether the ratings for colleges and wines are meaningful.

In America, each was once the near-exclusive preserve of wealthy, waspy elites but has more recently been democratized, marketed and made available to the middle and working classes. Though access to both of these complex goods is now universal, it is widely supposed that in both cases price tracks quality, such that the cost of a bottle of Dom Perignon or four years’ tuition at Brown is worth it: the product is better than one from a cheaper brand.

The problem is that when it comes to wine, price has little to do with quality, once quality is evaluated in truly blind taste tests. As Robin Goldstein shows in the book, The Wine Trials 2011 (which Goldstein co-edited with Alexis Herschkowitsch and Tyce Walters), Dom Perignon lost out in blind taste trials – including trials involving food and wine professionals – to the $12-a-bottle Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut. To Goldstein, what you’re really buying when you pay $150 for a bottle of Dom is the experience of owning and consuming something expensive. Buying Dom puts you in elite company: not just wealthy, but tastefully-yet-conspicuously wealthy.

Like wines, colleges are rated obsessively and vary widely in cost, and their quality is hard to pin down precisely, as many subjective elements are in play. Goldstein and his colleagues have developed a way to evaluate wines solely on what should be their most important aspect: how they taste. I wonder if a similar approach could be developed for colleges. If so, would it also bring to light some cheaper, lesser-regarded colleges that deliver high quality?

For Goldstein, blind tasting cuts through the confusion of wine marketing – including the 100-point rating systems, state fair medals, and advertising. He argues that wine rating systems are never truly blind and favor higher-priced wines almost exclusively. He asks, “If blind tasting experiments show that wine pricing is arbitrary from the perspective of everyday wine drinkers, then why are the magazine ratings that those drinkers rely on so directly correlated with price? And why do everyday wine drinkers still trust those ratings, and spend money on expensive wine?”

Because judgments of wines’ quality are seemingly so arbitrary, winemakers have little incentive to put their money into better winemaking, and every incentive to put it into marketing. Or simply to raise the price of their wines without attempting to improve their wines’ gustatory quality. Goldstein gives an example:

“For years, like other small winemakers looking for ways to distinguish their wines from the competition, [Robert] Hodgson would submit his wines to various medal competitions in California and elsewhere. But the results seemed to have no pattern at all. At one competition, one wine would win a gold medal, while another would win no medal at all; at another competition, the results were precisely reversed.”

The college where I teach is 40th [2013 update: 37th] in US News and World Report’s ranking of Northern regional universities (a category led by Villanova), and 294th [2013: 431st, ouch] nationwide in Forbes magazine’s ratings. The College of New Jersey is ranked fourth [2013: 5th] in the same US News category, but 285th [2013: 174th] by Forbes. Is the College of New Jersey far superior to King’s, or about the same? (Perhaps because US News relies heavily on reputation for its rankings, some of those it polled confused TCNJ with Princeton, which was known as the College of New Jersey for its first 250 years.)

In light of the rankings’ imprecision – if not meaninglessness – colleges invest a lot in distinguishing themselves through marketing campaigns and attracting students by funding athletics and installing recreational frills like rock-climbing walls. Given both the persistence of reputation and the difficulty of reliably measuring educational quality, colleges have little incentive to invest in improving instruction by hiring more faculty or cultivating professors’ teaching abilities.

I grant that people paying college tuition are after something more than quality instruction and that the reputation of one’s alma mater matters a lot when applying for jobs. And in fact one of my greatest convictions is that you get out of college mostly what you put into it, in thought and effort. For this reason, the analogy with wine is imperfect.

But in both industries, the rankings are unreliable and the incentive to invest in marketing is greater than the incentive to invest in product quality. Goldstein has done consumers a great service in developing alternate means of highlighting good wines. Goldstein’s approach could conceivably help shift the wine industry’s priorities. Given the big money involved in higher education, it would be worth developing similar means for evaluating colleges on their educational merits.