All posts by Edward Fiske

Edward B. Fiske, who writes the Fiske Guide to Colleges (Sourcebooks), is a former education editor of the New York Times.

Ten Reasons to Ignore the U.S. News Rankings

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There are certainly some good reasons for
some people to take the U.S. News college rankings seriously. Presidents of
schools that went up a notch or two can trumpet the fact to their trustees
while noting modestly, of course, that “we don’t really pay them any heed.” But
if you are a college-bound student or the parent of one, there are lots of
reasons not to give them any
credence. As a starter, and in the spirit of my editorial friends at U.S. News,
here are my Top 10:

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The Fiske Guide Turns 30

It seems only yesterday that a few colleagues and I gathered every night in the back of the newsroom of New York Times, then on West 43rd Street, to create the first edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It’s hard to believe that the appearance of the 2012 edition this month marks the 30th anniversary!

Today’s Fiske Guide is a lot different than the first edition. It’s a lot bigger – with write-ups of more than 300 of the “best and most interesting” colleges in the country. There is an electronic version, and, most exciting of all, there’s a new iPad app with lots of bells and whistles to streamline the college search process. Once you have identified schools that sound like a good bet, you can use the iPad version of the Fiske Guide to plan your college tour, email admissions departments directly, browse each college’s website and check out competing schools. Unfortunately, you still have to brew your own coffee.

And – get this – there’s even a complete new Mandarin edition for Chinese students who have set their sights on a U.S. college. It’s kind of fun seeing your name in Chinese characters (or at least I think that’s my name).

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The Rankings Will Always be Gamed

Trying to rank hundreds, if not thousands of colleges is obviously foolish, but this foolishness has consequences beyond supplying iffy advice to clueless shoppers. To the extent that potential enrollees take ratings seriously, institutions may be tempted to game the system and these tricks may well undermine education. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s illustration from Car and Driver, a car manufacturer can probably figure out the little gimmicks that magazine critics over-value and then accommodate these preferences even if they add zero to the car’s value.
Manipulating a rating will not push a third-rank school into the Ivy League, but in the mushy middle a few points can separate, say, 35 from 57. The temptation is to scam the system, regardless of the educational value. And what school can resist a little tinkering to leapfrog over rivals? So, if the rating formula stresses graduation rates, a few obscure bureaucratic adjustments—regular credit for what were once remedial courses, creating easy no-fail majors, allowing “Fs” to be expunged among similar ploys—can work wonders. Reed College refuses to participate in the U.S. News ranking, a wise choice given its low retention rate—hundreds of youngsters enroll in the mistaken belief that Reed is a sex and drug paradise, but most of these would-be hedonists flee almost immediately after encountering a hard-nosed take-no-prisoners freshman curriculum. Yet, this overly-generous admission generosity may benefit some high-potential under-achievers who might eventually flourish in a school of Reed’s intellectual caliber. If ratings were paramount and included retention, however, Reed would just play it safe and slip into staid conventionality.
And if average faculty compensation is the yardstick, any clever administrator can diddle the numbers. Just recruit expensive “star” talent who barely teach while “non-faculty” graduate students handle classroom instruction. Better yet, hire only those whose hefty salaries are paid by outside grants—get all the benefits of high salary compensation without any of the cost. Need more library holdings to impress the raters? No problem—buy cheaper paperbacks instead of expensive scholarly monographs. Need a reputation for “good teaching”? Since some raters use the internet to establish instructional “quality,” keep tough graders away from large required courses and watch ratings soar on ratemyprofessor.com.
My own favorite tactic for juicing “scholarly reputation” (at least in the social sciences) is to hire faculty who specialize in mathematical analysis and its variants like rational choice. These professors are amazingly productive and can quickly build a department’s disciplinary reputation where, as often the case, only publication volume counts. No matter that these professors teach gobbledygook to undergraduates who prefer history-rich accounts of WW II versus, say, a lecture on why country A attacked country B using the Prisoner’s Dilemma format. But don’t even think of hiring more substantively oriented adjuncts to compensate for these content-free courses—having too many part-timers, regardless of their backgrounds, especially if they lack doctorates, typically kills a school’s reputation among raters regardless of how much students learn.
This is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem—journalist outsiders, many of whom barely understand university life, shaping university policy by deciding what is academically important and even then, only using readily available crude information. That so many administrators happily defer to these ill-informed outsiders so as to up their rank a few notches is perhaps the most depressing feature of this foolishness.

The Achilles Heel of the U.S. News Rankings

In 1983 U.S. News & World Report came up with what Ben Wildavsky, a former education editor at the magazine, described as “a journalistic parlor game.” The magazine had just conducted a successful survey of U.S. leaders to identify the most influential Americans. Why not, the editors asked, use a similar approach to identify the country’s top colleges and universities?

So U.S. News sent surveys to college presidents around the country asking them to pick ten colleges that provided the best undergraduate education in their particular academic niche. The magazine published the results in 1983 and again in 1985, and by 1987 the project had morphed into a free-standing guidebook entitled America’s Best Colleges. “No one imagined that the rankings would become what some consider the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education,” recalled the late Alvin Sanoff, the longtime managing editor of the rankings project.

The gorilla continues to stalk U.S. higher education. Last week Daniel de Vise of the Washington Post reported that “a small but determined” group of college presidents in the Washington-Baltimore area is now boycotting the “peer assessments” questionnaire that U.S. News & World Report sends them every year as part of its process of updating its college rankings. Their protest follows a report last year that another group of college presidents across the country had pledged to do likewise.

It’s easy to understand why college presidents don’t like U.S. News butting into their affairs in the first place and might be inclined not to cooperate at all (as Reed College has done). John Burness, the former communications chief at Duke University, probably spoke for most of higher education when he observed in 2008 that the precision that U.S. News ascribes to its rankings “is, on the face of it, rather silly.”

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The Rankings Go Global

The Times Higher Education Supplement has now come out with its sixth annual listing of the world’s top universities. Harvard continues to top the list, followed by the denizen of that other Cambridge across the Pond, which has now edged out Yale. The big news this year: the number of North American universities in the top 100 dropped from 42 to 36 from last year, while Asian universities are coming on strong.
I typically react to such news items in three stages. First, OMG, American higher education is tanking. Then I begin to fear that U.S. News & World Report copy-cats are taking over the world. Then the left side of my brain checks in and I ask myself whether such international comparisons are worth the bother.
Let’s take these reactions one at a time, not necessarily in chronological order.

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Gaming The College Rankings

Test prep pioneer Stanley H. Kaplan, who died this week at the ripe old age of 90, was a living embodiment of the roller coaster changes that have roared through the college admissions scene over the last three decades. He also set the stage for students, and later colleges and universities, to game the system.
Kaplan began his career intent on showing how the SAT, designed in such as way as to preserve the elitist nature of U.S. higher education, could become a vehicle for broadening access. In doing so he helped unleash forces leading to the current situation in which working the system is the norm for both institutions and applicants alike. Stanley Kaplan got the car rolling, climbed aboard and had one heck of a ride.
I first met Stanley Kaplan at an academic conference in the 1980s. He was the last person I would have picked out of the crowd as a test prep baron whose name was anathema to college admissions officers. He was short, gentle and avuncular in manner and, as I recall, dressed in what seemed to be battle fatigues. He was a born educator who wrote in his autobiography that “while other children played doctor, I played teacher.” It was Stanley Kaplan the teacher who began tutoring students for the New York State Regents exams in the basement of his Brooklyn apartment and giving them a shot at higher education.

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When College Rankings Are A Marketing Ploy

As author of a major college guide, I try to approach college admissions issues from the point of view of what’s best for college-bound high school students and their parents. I speak with lots of such students and their parents every year, and the one topic that is guaranteed to come up is: What should we make of the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings?

Here’s what I tell them.

First, understand the real agenda of college rankings. The main reason that U.S. News compiles and publishes rankings is not to enrich the quality of U.S. higher education but to sell magazines. And there is nothing wrong with this. Americans love rankings, whatever the topic, and (for reasons discussed below) these rankings can be somewhat useful.

But keep in mind that static lists do not sell magazines. If the rankings were the same every year, no family would need to by the updated list for younger brother or sister. Since both the absolute and the relative quality of major colleges and universities evolve only over long periods of time, the best way to generate churn in the rankings is to change the formula. Which is what U.S. News does every year – for reasons both sound and dubious.

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