Wednesday Weekly Reader: The College Rankings, Redux.

Recent news from the college search / admissions / finance front.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the soon-to-be-published 2012 Best College Rankings from US News & World Report. It was long and a bit ranty, but it can be found here.
Here are a few follow up (post-publication) articles and one excellent article from last February that I’d completely forgotten about…
1.  Inside Higher Ed reported on a meeting held with US News & World Report in ‘Thanks, but No Thanks.’ A committee of the NACAC [National Association of College Admission Counseling] looked at the way USN&WR composes its annual rankings, didn’t like it, discussed it with the publisher, and nothing about it is going to change, “regardless of how admissions counselors and higher education admissions officers feel about them.”

“The committee believes that the research and discussion about the imprecision of ordinal rankings in the ‘Best Colleges’ list has reached a point where not proactively acknowledging the limitations of the ranking formula through vigorous consumer education and flexible ‘ranking’ options risks misleading consumers and has compromised the journalistic integrity of the publication,” the report states.

Here’s the position from Robert Morse, who oversees the rankings:

As long as colleges and universities continue to weight test scores and class ranking as a crucial component of admissions criteria, Morse said, it is hypocritical for institutions to ask U.S. News not to do the same.

2. The New York Times blog on college admissions, The Choice: writes about the rankings and provides advice on how to use them.

The fact is that however much the rankings are wrapped in a gauze of science, there are any number of subjective judgements at play here, including the assembly of an “undergraduate academic reputation (100=highest)” and the various weights apportioned to students’ SAT and ACT scores, as well as rankings for institutions’ “financial resources,” “alumni giving” and even “average alumni giving rate.”

3.  Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who blogs at The College Solution, likens the rankings to a ‘Weird Beauty Contest.’

Every year, the magazine sends out three surveys to each institution in a particular category, such as national universities or liberal arts colleges. Three administrators in the office of the president, admissions and provost are supposed to fill out the surveys. The folks stuck with this chore are expected to grade each of their peers on a 1-to-5 scale. The best score is a 5 and the worst is a 1.

Any guess which schools get a heap of 5 scores?’ Beyond the automatic high scores of some schools and the crappy scores of others, what has always irked me is that universities and colleges are supposed to know what’s going on at their “peer” institutions and that’s impossible. You can’t tell me, for instance, that administrators at the University of Wisconsin can assess the academic quality of hundreds of its peers including Georgia State, University of Missouri, University of Chicago, Rutgers, MIT, San Diego State and the College of William & Mary.

4.  Given 1) that colleges doing well in the rankings have bragging rights; 2) want to publicize their ranking; 3) US News & World Report makes a lot of money from the published rankings; and  4) has a commodity to protect, we shouldn’t be surprised at the income USN&WR gains from the ‘Best Colleges’ badges shown on college websites. See Best Colleges Badge: We Sustain Its Existence, from Inside Higher Ed.

However, a recent discussion on a higher education web developers listserv reinforced the fact that some still find the “badge” to be valuable. In fact, due to the exorbitant fees that U.S. News charges to display the “best badge,” some schools have gotten creative with their web marketing. Instead of paying the $1,000 cost (web use only, 12 months) to display the award badge, some higher education web developers display a graphic of the cover of the U.S. News magazine as a way to indicate their ranking status. By the way, the cost for unlimited electronic use of the best badge for only a year is $5,500. Imagine if a majority of the 1,600 schools in the U.S. News rankings list paid for either the limited web use or even the unlimited option. It is potentially a multi-million dollar operation.

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 confe...

Image via Wikipedia

5.  Finally, last February the New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of the Best Colleges rankings. Gladwell offers the analogy of ranking automobiles and shows how different choices, by necessity, build different ‘best’ lists. Yes, a Dodge could be better than a Ferrari, depending upon the criteria used. Unfortunately, the online article is behind the New Yorker‘s paywall. Here’s a link to the abstract. If you’re not a subscriber, this entertaining read is well worth looking up at your library.

What have you been reading? What do you think of the rankings? As always, please comment below…

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