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Old 03-23-2007, 09:16 PM   #1
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The College Rankings Revolt(?)

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The College Rankings Revolt

By Julie Rawe
TIME, Wednesday, Mar. 21, 2007


College presidents are a fairly unflappable lot, but nothing gets their goat quite like the issue of rankings. Take a complex institution, crunch it down into a single number, and the adjectives start flying: "Silly." "Snotty." "Scandalous." Echoing many of his peers, Robert Weisbuch, president of Drew University, blames the rank-ordering of diverse schools for much of the current college-admissions frenzy. "It's almost as though we've created a monster," he says. And yet, despite years of vituperation, most schools keep dutifully filling out the surveys that make these ratings possible. Why?

Because in the race for consumers—er, students—few colleges, no matter how well endowed, are willing to risk their prestige by dropping out of what has become a hugely influential beauty contest, U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings. Like many magazines—this one included—U.S. News compiles lists because, well, readers buy them, but lists can invite gamesmanship. This year, however, a small but growing number of schools are starting to fight back. Or preparing to fight back. O.K., contemplating fighting back. The heads of a dozen private colleges are waiting for the final draft of a letter they will probably sign and send within the next few weeks to their counterparts at 570 or so small to midsize schools asking whether they would be willing to pull out of the U.S. News survey, stop filling out part of it, stop advertising their ranking or, most important, help come up with more relevant data to provide as an alternative. Says an early draft: "By acting collectively, we intend to minimize institutional risk and maximize public benefit." Translation: We can't afford to go solo.

U.S. News has been grading colleges and universities since 1983, and while the magazine mostly uses hard data, the largest single component of the rankings—25% of a school's overall score—comes from a survey that asks presidents, provosts and admissions directors to assess peer institutions. The reputational rating is "a very legitimate tool for getting at a certain level of knowledge about colleges," says U.S. News executive editor Brian Kelly. "Who better to ask to evaluate colleges than top college administrators?"

But schools complain that the surveys lock them into the same relative space on the list, often because of decades-old impressions. They also argue that the rankings' formula overemphasizes selective admissions data like low acceptance rates and high SAT scores for incoming freshmen while giving short shrift to what really matters but is much harder to measure: the education students receive once they get on campus. Even more pernicious is what critics call "ranksteering," i.e., specifically tailoring administrative decisions to move higher up on the list. The rankings encourage more per-pupil spending, which makes up 10% of a school's score and certainly doesn't help keep tuition down. Indeed, Bowdoin College watched its ranking slip from fourth to eighth in the '90s as it balanced its budget rather than keep pace with peers' spending increases. "Evaluating education in a way that rewards institutions for building Jacuzzis and rock walls as much as for investing in what happens in the classroom is a system that is leading us in the wrong direction," says Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College. He and others warn of "hidden incentives," but sometimes they're in plain sight. Just this month, a compensation plan was approved for the head of Arizona State University explicitly tying a $10,000 bonus to a higher U.S. News ranking.

A few schools have tried to opt out of the list. When Reed College stopped complying in 1995, the magazine assigned the lowest possible value to the missing statistics; in one year, Reed fell from the second quartile to the fourth. (Since then, the iconoclastic school has suffered no shortage of qualified applicants.) U.S. News now plugs in whatever data it can find for nonparticipants. "They won't let you quit," Drew president Weisbuch says of the magazine's data collectors. "I would spell it U.S. N-O-O-S-E."

Weisbuch, who has asked his faculty to vote this spring on whether to continue filling out the survey ("If it were up to me, we'd quit"), is helping draft the letter urging his peers to take bolder steps collectively. More than one president in the liberal-arts sub-30 neighborhood—Drew this year is tied for 69th—has said higher-ups need to jump ship first. But even the Ivies are worried about taking the plunge. In recent years, a top-ranked school got a new president who wanted to skip the survey. "I was told we would drop 10 points and no one would know why," says the head honcho. "I'd have to be an idiot to do that."

Hence the need for what Lloyd Thacker, a former college guidance counselor and admissions officer, calls "benevolent collusion." Thacker, who started a nonprofit in 2004 with the cat-herding goal of returning sanity to the admissions process, is pushing the current letter-writing campaign with the fervor of an evangelist. And his flock of concerned college presidents gained a few more members after a recent publicity flap. U.S. News was revealed to have considered assigning in its next rankings an arbitrary SAT score to Sarah Lawrence College because the school no longer collects applicants' scores.

But no matter how many institutions join forces to take on the rankings, the question is, What can they offer as an alternative? As U.S. News can attest, more meaningful metrics are hard to come by. Says Kelly: "Whenever we can get better data, we use it." One way to compare educational quality would be if more colleges published the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is administered by Indiana University and is already used internally by hundreds of schools to gauge such things as how much students feel challenged by the curriculum. Yes, student opinion is an imperfect measure, but, says Kent Chabotar, president of Guilford College, "if there's nothing else out there, why not? We all use it." Meanwhile, two groups of public universities are putting together comparable—and consumer-friendly—data on educational outcomes. The reporting system, expected to be finalized this fall, will be voluntary but could catch on if adopted by enough of the associations' members, which teach some 70% of all students pursuing four-year degrees in the U.S. Because as colleges well know, there's safety in numbers—and pressure too.
For those who've attended, or are planning to attend, college in the US--realistically, how important were or are rankings to you? What was your preferred way to go about figuring out which colleges would be most worthwhile for you to apply to, and who or what was most helpful with that?
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Old 03-23-2007, 09:44 PM   #2
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I'm still planning on doing my LL.M in the US and rankings are quite important. First, because it's an expensive endeavour, and when you go outside the US, it's even more important to have a recognizable name on the resume. Because I want to get into academia, the reality is that you need to stack your resume with the best schools you possibly can.

That said if we are just talking about your undergraduate degree, then I don't think it's as important. I probably would not have gone outside the top 20 mainly because I don't think my parents would have been amenable towards the idea of paying for a "lesser known" school, and I did rely on them financially when I applied. They did not care specifically where my brother and I went, but it was understood it would be one of the top 5 schools in the country. I don't know that the view is necessarily right, but it's theirs and it was fine. I went to my first choice and so did he, so it isn't as if we were forced to attend a school we had no real desire to attend.
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Old 03-23-2007, 09:45 PM   #3
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Re: The College Rankings Revolt(?)

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Originally posted by yolland

For those who've attended, or are planning to attend, college in the US--realistically, how important were or are rankings to you? What was your preferred way to go about figuring out which colleges would be most worthwhile for you to apply to, and who or what was most helpful with that?
For me it was more of whether I liked the location and the atmosphere of the college and whether it had good programs in the areas that I was interested in studying. Unfortunately, how the hell I was going to afford it - whether I was a resident of that state or not, would I get scholarships from the school, could I even afford traveling expenses to a school farther than a days drive, 'etc - was ultimately the deciding factor for me.

My college LOVES to publish its rankings all over the Admissions section of the webpage. They get good rankings in their class or however they're divided up. Honestly, I didn't realize how "good" ("good" as in if you're just looking at these rankings and surveys) my school was until my second year of attending.

http://www.calvin.edu/admin/admissions/endorsements/

Not really sure about the "best value" one since it costs about $26,000 a year. GVSU is a bigger state school here and they are REALLY becoming a great school for about 1/5 the cost. My little sister is going there in the fall. We were also 4th place (I think) in some ranking of dry campuses. That's just as arbitrary as everthing else. Who wants to have a party in their little freshman dorm room? Of course the campus stays dry - everyone is partying in East Town where the college slums are
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Old 03-24-2007, 12:35 PM   #4
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As I'm finishing up my PhD and starting to go on the academic job market, I'm not paying much attention to rankings. I don't care about a school's reputation; I care about whether I'll be given the opportunity to work closely with students and to teach to the best of my ability. I'm not one to just stand up and lecture--I like to interact with students, and to have students interact with one another during class.

I have a very big problem with the whole "big box university" scheme, where students are treated as a commodity rather than as people, and where statistics seem to matter more than teaching. Both of the graduate schools I've attended have been large state universities--one with 36,000 students, one with about 13,000--and it's sickened me to see the sort of education many undergrads get--huge classes where they're lucky if a TA let alone a professor actually knows their name, little focus on essential skills such as writing, those sorts of things. But are parents paying for the name on the sweatshirts and coffee mugs they inevitably receive every Christmas, or for their child's education?

Parents use these rankings as a guide, and I doubt that many of them realize that the rankings are very misleading. Freshmen retention rate, for instance--does that mean those who didn't stay flunked out, that they didn't like the school, that they decided college wasn't for them, or something else? And alumni giving rank--does that take into consideration the percentage of alumni who can't afford to make donations because they're still trying to pay off their loans? The percentage of full-time faculty, average class size, and student to faculty ratio don't always matter, either, because a professor can stand in front of a class of 10 or 250 and just lecture without any student interaction. But how can you come up with a statistic for student/faculty interaction?

Statistics don't matter if a student gets lost in the crowd, or can't find the help he or she needs (academically, socially, or medically), or doesn't receive enough individual attention from R.A.s, tutors, advisors, professors, and other campus staff. If universities must function as businesses, why can't they at least focus more on the customer? Some do, of course, but unfortunately they tend to be small private schools that are too expensive for many families.

University presidents need to stop acting like company CEOs and start thinking about how to better facilitate learning at their schools. I think things like these rankings, which take into consideration only statistics and not the intangibles, aren't effective, and the ones who are suffering the most are students.
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Old 03-24-2007, 12:58 PM   #5
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I received my degrees (especially undergrad) from highly ranked universities that were out of state. After I entered the professional world, I found that there is a bias towards recruiting from local universities (perhaps ranked lower) in many companies. One reason is that alumni working at these companies prefer to recruit employees from their alma mater schools.

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Originally posted by anitram
That said if we are just talking about your undergraduate degree, then I don't think it's as important.
I think it depends on which field one wants to enter. For example, some top companies recruit heavily at highly ranked universities and don't even visit lower ranked universities.
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Old 03-24-2007, 02:03 PM   #6
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Rankings and how the college reqruiters rank schools are what I looked at.
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Old 03-24-2007, 02:13 PM   #7
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Rankings were a big part of my criteria, but not the only part. I remember being a senior in high school in Maryland, and wanting to go to a college that:

* was in a new part of the country for me

* was a top-tier school, academically, in all academic fields, in case I changed my major

* public school (gotta keep it real, didn't want to be in a bubble, and didn't want huge debts afterwards)

* warm weather

...so I went to Berkeley. And if I could do it over again I definitely would.
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Old 03-24-2007, 02:46 PM   #8
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I'm only a sophomore but because I scored well on the PSATs which I took earlier this year I've been receiving a frenzy of letters and e-mails from colleges who want me to either:

A) Sign up to receive a pamphlet for their college.
B) Pay to go to a summer program.
C) Buy a book with "5 Thing You Don't Know About College Admissions!"

Most of the time it's C.

I'm also with a program that has college information, like typical SAT scores, acceptance percentages, etc. That information has been helpful a little bit, although I agree that it doesn't talk about the education that college gives, as said above.

The honest to goodness key thing for me right now is the money. My family is not keen on paying college tuition, and has pretty much said get a scholarship or take out a loan, which is especially frustrating considering everyone I attend school with is receiving college money from their parents. So, we're all saving money, but they are saving it for to buy a car or something while I'm saving to have half a semester's worth of college tuition by the time I'm 18.

Colleges that offer financial aid to me will top my list right off the bat for that reason. However, it's very uncertain which colleges offer a lot of academic scholarships. With my high PSAT scores possibly foreshadowing success on the actual SATs, and being in the top 10% of my class, I'm hoping I get consideration for them. It's so uncertain right now. In fact, I really haven't been able to consider what I actually want from college at all. I don't know where I want to go, what I want to major in, or anything. My focus has been learning about financial aid and how I can get it. The process is extremely frustrating.
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Old 03-24-2007, 08:11 PM   #9
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I'm fairly skeptical of any college rankings. I really believe that the quality of education is what you make of it - sort of the Will Hunting approach to getting educated at the library vs. Harvard. Where the higher ranked schools make a difference is in the ability to network and the schmooze factor you get at Harvard or Princeton vs. State U. This is especially true in the grad programs. A good portion of time in business school, you don't actually take classes, you're out attending functions. With that said, a strong network will go a lot further than any degree will. Notre Dame has one of the strongest alumni networks in the country and their alumni do there best to take care of their own. If a Notre Dame is hiring people and he's got an average ND grad against a small time college grad, a majority of the time the ND grad will get the job. It's just the way things are.

As for the quality of education you receive at a top tier place, it may be better - but that's debatable. Grade inflation runs rampant at places like Harvard. Their students are smart, but probably not as smart as they'd like us to believe. If the grades fell, their ranking could drop and they wouldn't want that. I graduated from a smaller, but good school and would be willing to bet our alum could hold their own in the classroom against people from the higher ranked places.
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Old 03-24-2007, 10:57 PM   #10
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I'm a high school senior now (almost done ) and going to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in the fall.

My criteria included:
*big school because I come from a town of 5,000 and wanted to live and study in a huge city and campus

*good reputation - obviously U of M has good rankings, but that wasn't really important to me, I've talked with several people who are there now, toured the campus, it's one of the best research universities in the U.S.

*people knowing who I am - I already have made a "name" for myself in the admissions department since I had to fight my way into the university due to a few different things (just an FYI, I scored a 29 on my ACT with a 36 in the science, have a 3.4 or 3.5 GPA and still had trouble getting into a college)
- also, there are so many opportunities at U of M to get into a smaller group, whether it's in a first year interest group, or the many student organizations

*internships and research - because I'm planning on medical school after my undergrad, so the opportunity to get an internship in a hospital, or do research with world renowned faculty was a huge factor

*financial aid - I will be getting my entire tuition paid for because of my parents' financial situation, and because U of M has a program that gives free tuition to any student who qualifies for a federal Pell grant


So, I could care less about rankings because any time I've looked at them, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. are all at the top. The categories are very vague as well and don't tell much about the school itself.
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Old 03-25-2007, 12:09 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally posted by onebloodonelife
So, I could care less about rankings because any time I've looked at them, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. are all at the top. The categories are very vague as well and don't tell much about the school itself.
randhail had some good points - that it's more the intangibles than the quality of education that can place the Ivies higher in the rankings. Alumni networks, recruiting opportunities, faculty connections, and reputation etc. do count for a lot after the degree. These are major reasons why so many students apply to those schools.
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Old 03-25-2007, 02:10 AM   #12
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I didn't look at rankings at all. I'm a whore and I was lookin for who could give me the best offer. My parents weren't footin the bill, but they told me that i HAD to go to college. So...I just applied for the scholarships. VT offered me the most money.

And then when it came to grad school, same thing. I was accepted in the 2 I applied for (Johns Hopkins and VT) but VT offered full tuition reimbursement and a stipend in return for slave labor.

But I guess it worked out well. My current program is in the top 10 in the field. I didn't even know that when I applied!

I think for my next degree I will take the following into consideration:
1) program (like, does the course match what i want to do)
2) location
3) financial aid

I don't care much for rankings. The way I see it, I'm a unique individual with my own learning style. So I prefer to make my decision based on how I feel about the school after interviews, campus visits, intuition, etc. If I get a good vibe, then I go for it. The rankings don't consider vibes, so to me they are irrelevant.
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Old 03-25-2007, 09:29 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by ntalwar


randhail had some good points - that it's more the intangibles than the quality of education that can place the Ivies higher in the rankings. Alumni networks, recruiting opportunities, faculty connections, and reputation etc. do count for a lot after the degree. These are major reasons why so many students apply to those schools.
True, but I believe that if you're going to any big name state school, you're also recognized as a top student. Maybe I'm just naive...
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Old 03-25-2007, 10:22 AM   #14
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Originally posted by onebloodonelife


True, but I believe that if you're going to any big name state school, you're also recognized as a top student. Maybe I'm just naive...
In my experience, the admits for the big state schools and smaller private schools aren't really comparable b/c the reasoning behind the selection criteria is totally different. The smaller private schools like mine admit 98% of applicants. Basically, we admit anyone as long as you've taken the right pre-reqs in high school. This is because they don't get any money from the state, so they can't afford to be selective in the admitting process. That, and they usually have some religious thing about being fair to everyone, yadda yadda... Academics-wise though, I found the smaller private college very challenging. Sure, they admit 98%, but what they DONT tell you is how many of these kids drop out after a semester or their first year b/c they just aren't making the cut. Some people will try to complete the core requirements at state colleges b/c those classes are so much easier, however our school limits what classes you can transfer and you're not allowed to transfer grades from state schools. Otherwise, we'd take all the hard classes at an easier school and end up with an inflated GPA that does not reflect the academic work done at the actual college. My little sister isn't dumb, but she's not very academic either. She does well in high school, but doesn't really care a whole lot about her grades. She's going to the huge state school here and she failed the admission process once (had to re-take the ACT). The process of getting in is far more selective, but she's going there b/c the classes are easier and it will be a smoother transition for her (she's the typical youngest child and tends to cling to our mom).

I also agree that randhail makes a great point about networking. I'm not really that impressed with my school, for reasons other than academics, but the one reason I AM glad I went there is the networking. The whole side of this state is basically one big conservative religious community and they are very bias. Many companies are very outspoken about hiring Calvin and Hope graduates over people from WMU and GVSU and do their recruiting pretty selectively. I also found that though my school was pretty small, the Career Development office had an amazing network of companies nationally and even globally and no one really has trouble getting great paid internships. I'm sure the state schools have established equally helpful networks in their areas.

Basically, I think any college will be what the individual student makes of it. If you want to be academically challenged, you can get that pretty much anywhere as long as you take on good internships, do honors, join some clubs in your program, etc. The same goes for networking. I really slacked off in that area, but our Business Forum meets I believe once a week at our conference center where they get all dressed up and host dinners and receptions for as many companies that will come. My criteria for success was pretty low - getting to study in another part of the world and getting a job right away - so my college worked out for that since 1) they require students to study abroad and 2) I now work for them If I'd had the time to push myself, there were other clubs and more competitive programs I could have tried, but I realized quickly that I couldn't do well if I bit off too much along with work. You can go to an Ivy school and slack off, or you can go to a little community college and be the top student. It's really what each person makes of it. I suppose it depends on the company, but in my experience the recruiters have paid much more attention to my work/internship/volunteer/other experience than just looking at which schools I attended.
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Old 03-25-2007, 12:11 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally posted by onebloodonelife

True, but I believe that if you're going to any big name state school, you're also recognized as a top student. Maybe I'm just naive...
A lot of those big name State schools also have a reputation as party schools . Geography also matters. I have a MS from a large state u. (with a top 5 program in my field) across the country from where I live. When I returned back to my home area to start work, I was basically in the same boat as people from local (in some cases commuter) universities. A big name state school's reputation tends to wear off the farther away you move from it.

Liesje's point is good about it's what you make it. Being admitted is in some ways the easy part. Motivation and taking advantage of the available resources outside of the classroom and coursework- academic, social, networking, etc. are essential. However, for corporate fields like business and law (e.g. Wall Street), the Ivies are definitely overrepresented at the top firms, and they do like to recruit their own.
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