Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

  Colleges revolt against U.S. News rankings

It's one of higher education's perennial scandals. The U.S. News and World Report annual rankings of colleges are the object of ridicule by nearly everybody inside academia. The various bases for the rankings include some silly and nearly meaningless "measures" of quality. But every year colleges hold their collective breath when the annual issue appears, eager to have climbed in rank. The rest of the year, college planning may well be measured by whether it helps or hinders that scramble up the U.S. News charts, even if it's counterproductive to sound educational or administrative policies.

In other words, colleges have allowed themselves to become enthralled to a cheesy sales gimmick. Now several dozen prominent colleges have declared their independence from U.S. News.

At a gathering in Annapolis (once the site of a famous Liberty Tree), the long-festering resentment against U.S. News' nefarious influence finally broke into open revolt.

A group of U.S. liberal arts colleges plans to stop participating in U.S. News and World Report's higher- education rankings, saying the magazine's yearly survey misleads students.

A majority of representatives at a meeting today agreed not to cooperate with the annual U.S. News assessment, said Christopher Nelson, chairman of the association, called the Annapolis Group because it was founded there in 1993. Members will work with other organizations to develop alternative ways to evaluate colleges.

The decision by the group, which includes colleges such as Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore, compounds the resistance to the system used by U.S. News, which compiled its first rankings in 1983 and began publishing them annually in 1987. The Washington- based magazine is facing criticism for using subjective criteria to evaluate a school's value, particularly a survey asking administrators to pass judgment on other schools' reputations.

"The idea that you could reduce a college to a number is antithetical to everything we know about ourselves, about our students and about what learning is all about," said Nelson, 59, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, where the group met. "It's possible that we've reached a tipping point where people realize the pernicious effects of these kinds of rankings."

The 115-member association didn't take a formal vote at its annual meeting, which drew 80 presidents. Each member school will make its own choice about whether, or to what extent, it will cooperate with the magazine, Nelson said.

Adds the NY Times:

Critics say the ranking system lacks rigor and has had a harmful effect on educational priorities, encouraging colleges to do things like soliciting more applicants and then rejecting them, to move up the list.

“We really want to reclaim the high ground on this discussion,” said Katherine Will, the president of Gettysburg College and the incoming president of the Annapolis Group. “We should be defining the conversation, not a magazine that uses us for its business plan.”

The revolt has been a long time coming. In May, several of these colleges joined a petition urging their counterparts to refuse any longer to fill out U.S. News' surveys and, more importantly I believe, to cease mentioning the U.S. News rankings in their promotional material. There's the rub. Colleges that are placed high in the rankings are sorely tempted to latch onto that "number" and flog it to prospective students.

Other college presidents who attended the meeting were more cautious. Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst, which is ranked second among liberal arts colleges, said he was not ready to stop cooperating with U.S. News and wanted to continue to discuss the issue.

Parents and students, you'd be wise to be extremely wary of any college or university that seeks to impress you with its ranking by U.S. News. It's not just that these rankings are nearly worthless for the purposes of comparing colleges. It's also that the administrators know they're worthless. In other words, they think you're suckers.

Such people tend to fold, bend, mutilate, or spindle their own educational institutions in the pursuit of higher rankings. It sounds implausible, perhaps, but I've seen it in action. The results typically are pretty disastrous, if the policy endures for long.

For example, I observed first hand as one undistinguished college set out very deliberately to remake itself into a perfect U.S. News New-Model College. The main "policies" seemed to boil down to two things, around which the entire educational life of the college came to revolve: (i) Increase the retention and graduation rates; (ii) Increase the ratio of applications to acceptances.

Number (i) quickly turned into a ball-and-chain in the classroom. Academic standards were going way down very fast even before I joined the college. It's not just that nearly all students were passed no matter how little they actually learned. Grade inflation was so rampant that the average grade across the board in many departments was an "A" or "A-". To fail a student was a blotch on a professor's record as far as the administrators were concerned. Some students were graduated whom everybody admitted were illiterate nincompoops. There were even a few who were kept on year after year, though they had so many low grades that it was nearly impossible any longer for them ever to raise their GPA up to a passing level (in order to graduate). Why go on? The academic life became hollowed out in pursuit of an inflated retention rate.

The application-ratio game (ii) had equally bizarre results. If I recall correctly, the admissions office sequestered the statistics for students admitted under "early admissions", and counted its ratio only by the numbers accepted and rejected under "regular admissions". That soon meant that nearly any applicant for early admission who had a pulse would be accepted. The number of slots left for the later round of admissions in the spring, thus, was quite small. Voila! Almost overnight the college shot up in its "selectivity" rating.

Then came the problem of trying to educate the good, the mediocre, and the terrible students in the same classroom—while passing them all (of course).

The screwed up priorities in spending on buildings and infrastructure is another, very large topic. Suffice it to say that in the crazy U.S. News world, a college is more likely to gain an advantage from building a shinier, bigger student center (ten years after the last) than by using the money to buy some books for its half-empty library.

This is just a snapshot of some of the damage that colleges can and have done to themselves in pursuit of a virtually meaningless ranking from U.S. News. The rebellion of the college presidents against the tyranny of these scam-artists is long overdue.

Furthermore, the ratings themselves don't make much sense. For one thing, the results achieved are sometimes way out of line with basic measures of educational quality. There are all sorts of grotesque anomalies. There is one college that U.S. News ranks among the top-ten liberal arts colleges, for example, that by my observation is really second rate. In fact the faculty there in my own field couldn't conceivably rank among the top fifty liberal arts departments in the country.

In any case, the fundamental point is that educational programs have so many aspects that are unquantifiable and incommensurable that it's really just a mark of foolishness to set out to draw up relative rankings of institutions of higher learning. The things that one student may find valuable at a college will hold no interest at all for another.

There are some pretty simple measures of the quality of an institution of higher learning, which students and parents can investigate for themselves without the intervention of commercial enterprises like U.S. News. For example, what is the library's annual budget for books? How many journals and periodicals does it subscribe to? How large is the reference collection? What sorts of things does the library devote space to on its main floor(s)? How many and what kinds of papers are students assigned? What do some course reading lists look like? What proportion of the faculty are full-time and tenured or tenure-track? How many faculty are in their offices when you walk down a hallway?

And don't forget: What does it all cost for four years?

crossposted from Unbossed

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