Yelp for Higher Ed? Please No…

I just read an article in the Chronicle Vitae last week titled Why We Need a Yelp for Doctoral Programs, by Leonard Cassuto of Fordham University (December 19, 2019). His thesis is that prospective students and funders could benefit from a Yelp-like web directory of doctoral programs, complete with comments from students and alumnus about the quality of their graduate program. Cassuto argues (correctly) that there is not enough information about the quality of these programs and it is difficult for students to prospect where they should consider attending.

In reality, Yelp for Higher Education would be a disaster. Cassuto states in the piece: “A Yelp-like national website that rated — not ranked — programs and graduate schools would go a long way toward solving the problem.” Well, it surely wouldn’t. Not only would it not solve this issue, it would make it worse. Remember the election of your student president in high school? Wasn’t the most popular person elected for the position, year after year? Perhaps not all the time, but mostly. Not every “Pedro” gets elected for office.

Any user can go on to Yelp and write anything they want, similar to Rate my Professors, which the New York Times Magazine said should be consulted “for novelty purposes only.”[1] I’m sure, at some point, you, the reader, has used Yelp. I use it often but I am very wary of the comments section. I look for balance. As the adage goes, one bad review negates 10 great reviews. Thus, how one uses the information is critical because people write on Yelp for two reasons: the first is altruistic: they want to give some leverage to the restaurant because the service and food was excellent. This is good. For others—and you’ve read these comments before—their sole purpose is to go for blood. They waited too long for their drinks (okay, I hate that, too), their food wasn’t what they ordered, they didn’t like the server. All items are real, but the reality is that more people go with an ax to grind rather than being helpful. The balance of appropriate versus misleading is problematic in Yelp.

In the restaurant industry, chefs and restaurant owners are not fans of Yelp. Anthony Bourdain perhaps put it best: “There’s really no worse, or lower human being than an elite Yelper. They’re universally loathed by chefs everywhere. They are the very picture of entitled, negative energy. They’re bad for chefs, they’re bad for restaurants. You know, you open a restaurant, you struggle for a year to put together the money, you work your heart out, and then 10 minutes after opening, some miserable b—— is tweeting or Yelping, “Worst. Dinner. Ever.”[2]

Cassuto suggests that the reputation of the program could be “based on real data from the providers and broad views from the users — instead of solely on off-the-cuff, unstudied impressions.” Possible, but I think having a Yelp for grad programs is actually doing what this comment says: providing off-the-cuff, unstudied impressions. They may be students or former students, but it is more like a love letter or a bitch session, and likely not much in between.

Here are a few other comments based on Cassuto’s piece:

“Our graduate schools need to be assessed by more student-centered measures. Yes, prospective students should know something about the influence of the research performed by a program’s faculty.”

But they don’t necessarily. Graduate students likely do not fully understand the value of their education until many years after graduation. As well, there is a bias of only asking the graduates; then one should really ask the non-graduates, too. And there exists a bias, there, too. There would likely be a difference in perspective from an adult grad student who has entered the program from the workforce rather than a perennial professional student who has gone to school for 19 years straight. At least, that’s my bias.

“Applicants need to know how well a program professionalizes its students, for example. How is the advising? What about the career counseling and job preparation — for both academic and nonacademic careers? What kinds of support (financial and otherwise) does the program offer students, and for how long? What is the typical time to degree? The rate of attrition? Friendliness to students from disadvantaged groups?”

WSS: Let’s unpack this one. It is fair to ask how some of these services are to students, but not to evaluate them on subjective answers. Advising can be good and it can be bad. It can be unnecessary for some students, although I believe all students should be heavily advised. Career counseling? Most grad programs don’t offer career counseling; by this point, you are in graduate school… you should have an idea. If not, then you might want to reconsider why you are in grad school.

What kinds of support does the program offer students? Well, how much financial support is there, really? If you are attending a very-high cost graduate school, there is a limit to what can be offered (to be fair, at any level and type of school) and this amount does not provide any information on the degree of program excellence. It is simply a financial condition. Does a $200,000 MBA program at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University mean it’s a bad program? It is one of the noted programs in the world. The cost has no reflection on quality, although the Chivas Regal effective implies it must be good.

Time to degree. Most MBAs are two-year programs. What differentiation is there from data on length of program? Thus, this information would not be very useful although not hurtful.

Attrition rate. Understanding attrition may be helpful, but a singular number won’t tell me why students are leaving. I don’t know if they leave for financial, academic, personal, or professional reasons. I don’t know if this rate is impacted by the economy. So it isn’t very helpful.  

Friendliness to students from disadvantaged groups. This might be interesting, but it may have no impact on my program. Graduate school is a selfish endeavor. It is ultimately about each student and less about the collective. I didn’t go to grad school for the others; I went for me and my future.

This is my perspective, for what it is worth, just as Professor Cassuto has his. I get his point, I just don’t agree with it as a researcher who sees the often very non-usable perspectives from student surveys, depending on what is being collected. Yelpers and other commenters are the most biased of all and are certainly skewed to the negative, as research points out in any type of self-selected survey. Thus, it wouldn’t be helpful for higher education.

But I’ll bet we see it soon.

Happy New Year.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/magazine/14FOB-medium-t.html

[2] Anthony Bourdain, October 11, 2017).

2 thoughts on “Yelp for Higher Ed? Please No…

  1. Graduate school is a “selfish endeavour” not only or so much for students as for faculty, who often use students to fill their classes, assist with research, teach Gen Ed courses … but don’t give too much thought to these students’ futures or the ways in which the world has changed since they themselves were in graduate school.
    You’re right in that, by this point, students should have some idea of the jobs market and so forth, but this doesn’t free their institutions of the obligation to advise them and carve out more opportunities; that’s where some of these professors’ connections could come in handy.
    You’re also right in that solely subjective measures, “cherry-picked” or otherwise, aren’t v helpful, and all assessments should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. As always, the more context, the better: for ex., in publishing survey results, the author should specify the percentage of those surveyed who actually responded, even provide a copy of the survey so that readers can see all this for themselves.

    1. I agree with you… kinda of. I think if you are in grad school, the weight is on you job/careerwise. Undergrad? The institution should be very involved. But not grad school. Not that they can’t be, but I don’t think they should carry that weight. I think a good application piece would be for the student to say why they want to go to grad school. If they can’t answer that well they shouldn’t be there.

      Thx for the comments! All good.

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