College Rankings: Ignore or dive into the deep end.

No. 1 in College Tees.

Today all of the college reporters, consultants, bloggers, and more (clearly, including me) will report or comment on the release of the US News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking for 2012.

This is big news in higher ed because:

  1. Higher ed is a very, very, very big business.
  2. It sells a lot of magazines for US News & World Report (a magazine that no longer exists in print but for its college-related issues) and creates a lot of press. A 2007 press release from USN&WR stated within three days of the release their website received 10,000,000 page views, compared to 500,000 average views in a typical month.
  3. US colleges and universities pay very close attention to their own and their competitors’ rankings, whether they admit to it or not. Bragging rights — to prospective students and to wealthy alumni — are on the line.
  4. Many, if not all, of those same colleges and universities do what they can to game the system, and the system seems quite game-able. Many of the metrics — acceptance rate, peer assessment, admissions yield, and more — are susceptible to manipulation.

Want to read more about that last point?

See Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U., for his point by point rebuttal of the USN&WR college rankings, pp. 115-128.

Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U., provides a more historical view of the USN&WR college rankings, including the disdain college presidents had for this ‘beauty contest’ from the beginning in 1983, to specifics on how the rankings have been gamed, pp. 37-54.  Here’s a quick clip of Ferguson’s highly entertaining prose:

The university people… cringe at the notion that their students are mere consumers rather than spiritual entities whose souls require their special nourishment. They’re appalled by the unstoppable imperialism of the market — the relentless intrusion of cost-benefit logic, even into a realm that its practitioners hoped might be kept free from the market’s vulgarities.

It’s only natural, then, that they respond to this business mentality in the way they think businessmen would. They cheat.

What’s a prospective student to do? Take your pick:

  1. Ignore them; determine what’s important to you.
  2. Pay attention to the methodology; see if it fits with what’s important to you.
  3. Work on your essays. [Universal advice for college seniors.]

If you really want to take a look at college rankings, go for it — just don’t forget to check out how they put them together.

1.  The granddaddy of them all:  the US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings. Bob Morse, the director of data research, on their methodologies here.

2.  The Princeton Review offers lots of options within its rankings, including the Green Honor Roll (high eco ranking) and the Financial Aid Honor Roll (high in generosity). See their methodology here.

3.  Forbes Magazine weighs in with America’s Top Colleges, as they “try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would:  Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree?” Methodology provided by the Center for College Affordability & Productivity and it can be found here.

4.   Newsweek/The Daily Beast offers a whole slew of College Rankings, each with its own methodology. For example, the International list uses data from the two international listings below (#7 and #8) along with another listing from Spain and assigns its own weight to each datapoint.

5.  The Wall Street Journal offers ‘Top Recruiting Rankings‘. Anyone surprised that more students are recruited for jobs at larger universities? Here’s how they develop the rankings. (NB: these rankings were published on 9/13/2010.)

6.  Rugg’s Recommendations used to be available in book form; now available in pdf form by email. I wrote about it here.

7.  The 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking, was released in August. The rankings are searchable by field or by area of study. Hard to find the methodology on their website, but Wikipedia offers it here.

8.  The Times Higher Education World University Rankings (which gets the coolest logo award, hands down) offers 2010-11 listings here. The 2011-12 listings will be available October 6, 2011. At one minute past midnight. That’s probably Greenwich Mean Time, in case you want to catch it as soon as it’s posted. There are a number of links related to the methodology, but my favorite is this one, humbly titled: Robust, transparent, and sophisticated.

9.  Finally, I have a fondness for the new rankings offered by Washington Monthly, if only because they’ve taken a completely different approach, looking at outcomes, instead of inputs:

Conventional rankings like those published by U.S. News & World Reportare designed to show what colleges can do for you. Since 2005, our rankings have posed a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, isn’t just important for undergraduates. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they offer students from low-income families the path to a better life, and when they shape the character of future leaders. And we all pay for it, through hundreds of billions of dollars in public subsidies. Everyone has a stake in how that money is spent.

That’s why one-third of each college’s score on our rankings is based on social mobility: How committed are they to enrolling low-income students and helping them earn degrees? Our second category looks at research production and success at sending undergraduates on to PhDs. Finally, we give great weight to service. It’s not enough to help students look out for themselves. The best colleges encourage students to give something back.

Speaking of outcomes, wouldn’t most parents/prospective college customers be interested in finding out which colleges rank highly on the National Survey of Student Engagement?  Too bad those results are available only to the participating institutions.

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1 Comment

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One response to “College Rankings: Ignore or dive into the deep end.

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Weekly Reader: The College Rankings, Redux. | Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

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