October 11, 2007

College Leaders Knock Rankings

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The debate over college rankings took off earlier this year, when an article in The Washington Post revealed that U.S. News and World Report was using an arbitrary average SAT score to rank Sarah Lawrence College after the school stopped requiring SAT scores from its applicants.
On Sept. 7, 19 presidents of top liberal arts colleges signed a statement that discouraged the use of college rankings. Colleges that signed the statement aimed to reduce bias in the admissions process.
The statement read, “We commit not to mention … rankings in any of our new publications.”
“There are lots of different ranking systems,” said Grinnell College President Russell Osgood, who signed on to the statement. “The presence of the information is good but the calculus is mathematically questionable.”
The new statement differs from an earlier letter released in May by the Education Conservancy, a non-profit organization that works to improve the college admissions process. The U.S. News and World Report reputational survey, completed by college presidents about other colleges, is not mentioned in the new statement, a break from the position of the Education Conservancy, which took a strong stand against the rankings process in general.
According to Earlham College President Douglas Bennett, a signatory on the Education Conservancy’s statement, it is impossible for one single person to know information about tens of other institutions accurately enough to rate them.
Some presidents who signed the new statement but did not sign the Education Conservancy’s statement did so because they believed that rankings do have some benefit in the admissions process.
Osgood said, “Rankings provide more information to prospective students,” and added that international students mention U.S. News rankings online as an easy way to find out more about a college.
According to Bennett, however, rankings create a sharp sense of distinction between colleges that may be different simply because they have different mission statements. For example, the missions of some colleges are grounded in religious faith, whereas other colleges are not. Ranking the schools, he said, compares the vastly different types of colleges based on a single academic dimension.
“A large number of [the colleges] are very similar, [and] we all do a reasonably good job,” Osgood added. “That one of us will be number 11 is hard to explain.”
Bennett said he believes a better way for prospective students to compare colleges is for them to compare student learning using tools such as the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Both the NSSE and the CLA analyze students’ experiences and performance in college.
“U.S. News can’t put either of them into the rankings because they don’t have the data,” Bennett said.
According to Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News and World Report, the main criticism against rankings is unfounded.
Morse said, “[The colleges] are wrong in their premise that the students pay a lot of attention to the rankings. Rankings are not a key factor to student choice.”
Students, Morse said, are more concerned about the admissions process as a whole than the rankings themselves.
At Cornell, some students tended to agree that college rankings are not as important as some would claim.
“I didn’t know what Cornell was ranked when I was applying,” said Alka Menon ’10.
Only liberal arts colleges have signed either of the statements. Larger research universities such as Cornell have remained silent on the issue.
“Cornell and other universities are used to being judged by the public,”Morse said.
Bennett said he believes that all colleges and universities should work together to take a professional approach to make important information available to young people. Rankings, he said, do not allow prospective students to analyze individual pieces of data on their own merits. However, he continued, rankigs have been around for a long time, and even with the new statements that have come out against them, it does not appear that they will be leaving anytime soon.
According to Morse, the new statement is not a threat to U.S. News. The colleges are still going to provide their information for ranking, and will still participate in the reputational survey.
The formula that is used to create the rankings will undergo changes in the future to make it more precise, and it appears as if rankings will still be a part of colleges for years to come.
“It is a phenomena of American culture to be fascinated with rankings,” Bennett said. “It’s hard to pick up a magazine that doesn’t rank something, we just love to do that.”