I spend many a happy weekend day looking for lighthouses. I track my quarry through small towns, two lane roads and all matter of rural settings. Many of the towns that I visit have a restaurant, a bar or a store that heralds itself as a Famous Diner or home of so and so's Famous Hot Dogs or Pizza or Chili. I never eat at any of these places, so I can't comment on the food. While it is possible that all of these establishments are famous or even world famous I've never heard of any of them so I question this. It's easy to put up a sign and hard to check on a reputation. I doubt anyone gets hurt. On balance, this process is also found in other arenas.
One of those areas is colleges and universities. Reputation is important in higher education and all the players know that. The general logic is that you go to the best place you can get into. How do we know what the best places are?
Everybody knows that Harvard and Oxford are wicket good schools. There is general consensus about a lot of other places. After that, we are not always so sure.
We have rankings (which everybody criticizes but seem to be a part of everybody's advertising) which are generally limited to whole institutions but occasionally deal with departments and professional schools. The criteria used vary widely. Some are reputation rankings and others use a set of factors to judge the effort. A lot of this is a judgement call but its better than nothing.
Rankings cost money so not everything gets ranked. This means that in a lot of ways you are on your own in figuring out what the best really is. Being famous might help (although Hitler is famous) but how do we know that a particular program is famous? Like the restaurants that I pass up on my weekend trips, many programs claim to be famous or notable or the best. Nobody advertises that they are a low quality program. They often offer some reasons about why they are the best. Here is a short list:
1) We were the first or we have a program that has existed for a long time. This says a lot about persistence but little about quality. While it stands to reason that poor quality programs would go out of business, that isn't always true.Survival is often more about politics than quality.
2) We are expensive. Also not a measure of quality. You don't always get what you pay for.
3) We are the Largest Program: Size doesn't equal quality. In some cases it doesn't mean a lot of resources. On the other hand it is often difficult for small programs to mobilize the effort to achieve renown.
4) We are highly selective. This doesn't mean that your program is any good--it means that your incoming students are. It also might mean that you have really good advertising or that you are situated in an attractive city, have tons of financial aid or have the reputation as a fun campus.
5) Top People hold us in high regard. What people are those? How do you know? Is it in writing anywhere? I don't believe anything that isn't in writing. If everybody knows it, somebody wrote it down. At that point, you can deal with source credibility. Other than that, it's gossip.
6) Accreditation makes us the best. Sorry--accreditation means that you met a set of standards. Those standards are often very basic. You know what they call the person who graduates last from medical school--answer: Doctor.
7) All of Our People Went to Great Schools. How wonderful. Were they any good there? What have they done since? Just because people had potential doesn't mean they did anything with it.
Quality, particularly quality in graduate and professional education, depends on having an excellent faculty, cutting edge research, first quality students and a well developed curriculum. It needs good leadership. It needs faculty who are part of the important conversations in their professions and in their disciplinary specialties. If this sounds like hard work, you can be sure that it is--it's a lot easier to hang out a sign.