Ranking run-ins

March 12, 2007 at 6:43 pm 1 comment

Posted by Dee

Not unlike most years, the U.S. News and World Report 2008 college rankings are of course expected to receive controversy when published in August this year… but there’s a new something festering beneath the tidy, numerical surface this time.

Plenty have spoken out publicly against the rankings over the years, but not college administrators, who, if anything, bow down to the wondrous accuracy of the rankings in hopes of being boosted up them… I don’t call that subjective at all. But this year, it seems more college presidents are out to complain… finally!

According to an article published today in Inside Higher Ed, nearly a dozen liberal arts colleges are set to join the initiative that Sarah Lawrence College’s president, Michele Tolela Myers, began Sunday — against the revered U.S. News rankings. Apparently, Sunday Ms. Myers publicly charged the publication with making up data about Sarah Lawrence (apparently the issue is that Sarah Lawrence made the decision not to collect or use SAT scores in their admissions process so U.S. News decided to make up an average SAT score… one standard deviation lower than the SAT averages of schools similar to Sarah Lawrence!) So now, a handful more of liberal arts schools are set to prepare a letter to send out to fellow college presidents proposing a new approach to college rankings, including complete non-cooperation with U.S. News and refusal to complete the “‘reputational’ survey — which many educators deride as a ‘beauty contest’… even though it represents 25 percent of the magazine’s ranking formula.”

This could be huge for the college admissions industry, and especially for those naive students out there who for some reason consider the U.S. News rankings to be God. A message to all students out there, especially on behalf of all colleges: DO scrutinize rankings! Look at the metrics they use and decide for yourself what’s important! U.S. News DOES NOT equal God of all college rankings, there are other ways to rank based on different priorities…

Take a look: A breakdown of the U.S. News rankings

25%: Peer Assessment
     A survey is sent out to people “in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence… presidents, provosts, deans of admissions…” and they rank from 1 (low) to 5 (high) how good other schools are. And as subjective as that already is, the survey is sent out to 4,089 people, 58% of whom responded. And that’s what makes up 25% of the rankings, folks.

20%: Retention
     So at least this one is purely quantitative; 20% of the retention score comes from the freshman retention rate, and 80% from the six-year graduation rate. But again, the logic behind including this metric is subjective. They say the reason they include this score is because “the proportion of freshmen who return to campus the following year and eventually graduate, the better a school is apt to be at offering the classes and services students need to succeed.” This may be true, and yet I know plenty of students who are transferring after their freshman year, and not because they aren’t being offered classes they’re successful at… most freshman seem to transfer because they simply don’t like the college they’re at, perhaps for social just as much as academic reasons, or even location reasons… they didn’t like snow as much as they thought they would.

20%: Faculty Resources
     While I agree that faculty resources are important, again you need to be aware that the U.S. News rankings DO make assumptions. In this section, they make the assumption for you that small classes are inherently better than larger ones. Maybe you agree with them, maybe you don’t. All I can say is that an Intro Biology or Intro Psychology class of 100 people is not unreasonable, even 400 is not unreasonable, and perhaps 10 is… this is just something to think about. In all, I think the faculty resource section is done quite well, but again this is according to MY standards, and perhaps your priorities for faculty members are different. I think U.S. News does a good job incorporating faculty salaries, adjusting for regional cost of living differences, professors with high degrees, proportion of full-time faculty, and student-faculty ratio.

15%: Student Selectivity
     This is where SAT or ACT scores come into the formula. 50% of this score comes from average testing scores. Proportion of enrolled freshman in top 10% of their high school class and top 25%, and the college’s admission rate is also factored in here. I was actually surprised to see that admission rate was such a small part of the formula (only 10% of the Student Selectivity score!) This is why it’s so important to read their methodology; you may be surprised at how they put these rankings together!

10%: Financial Resources
     They write that “generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services.” You may disagree. I think I do agree with this statement. But again, that’s why it’s important to look at their formula.

5%: Graduation Rate Performance
     Um, okay this is something that jumps out at me as being a bit subjective again and quite unnecessary! Here’s what they write: “This indicator of ‘added value’ shows the effect of the college’s programs and policies on the graduation rate of students after controlling for spending and student aptitude. We measure the difference between a school’s six-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 1999 and the rate we predicted for the class. If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement.” Um… “the rate we predicted”? What’s up with that?!

5%: Alumni Giving
     Apparently, alumni giving “is an indirect measure of student satisfaction.” Yes, indirect indeed. There are so many lurking variables here it’s ridiculous! First of all, it’s obvious that some schools do have wealthier alumni, and even though they may be just as satisfied with their education as other alumni from less wealthy institutions, they’ll be able to contribute more. Also, apparently the U.S. News rankings do not reflect State contributions; this has been a huge problem for public schools who characteristically receive low alumni giving, not because alumni are dissatisfied with the school, but because the State funds the university. So even though one private college and another public college may have comparable funds, the private one may have much more alumni giving whereas the other may have less, does this mean the private school provides a bad education? Each person can answer that for themselves.

Again, I can’t stress enough that these are just the U.S. News’s rankings! Analyze the numbers; don’t take them for granted.


Entry filed under: ACT, Admissions, Alumni, Biology, Cheat, Classes, College trends, Colleges/Universities, Competition, Contribution, Dean, Debate, Education, Faculty, Freshman, Guideline, High school, Journalism, Lecture, Liberal arts, Mathematics, Money, Motivation, News, President, Professor, Psychology, Public schools, Publication, Ranking, Research, Sarah Lawrence, SAT, Statistics, Technique, Testing, Theory, Tips/Tricks, US News and World Report.

Response to M: the last word on the whole harvard debate They’re out to make college admissions a zinch

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Bob Werber  |  March 19, 2007 at 4:21 pm


    I thought you might be interested by an article we ran today about Arizona State University’s new plan to link a part of its president’s pay package to getting the school a higher rank in U.S. News & World Report. Critics of the magazine’s ranking system are growing in the higher education ranks, including Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy, who called Arizona’s plan “rotten, educationally irresponsible, wimpy, short-sighted and wrong.”

    The article is at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/03/19/usnews


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