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.

Remember Cal Tech’s glory year of 2000? Numero Uno in the country! By the next year, however, it no longer outshined Princeton, Yale and Harvard. The fabled bastion of techie whiz kids plummeted to #4. Seems as if the editors decided that the previous year’s formula gave Cal Tech too much credit for having lots of money and relatively few students on whom to lavish it.

Second, understand how colleges try to manipulate the rankings. This topic could fill a book, but I’ll try to restrain myself to Baylor University.

Eight years ago this Texas-based Baptist school adopted the so-called Baylor 2012 plan aimed at raising it to the level of “top-tier” universities while simultaneously “retaining and remaining grounded in our strong Christian mission.”

Now we know about the tactics underlying the strategy. In an apparent effort to bolster the SAT averages of entering freshmen – one element in the U.S. News formula – Baylor offered this year’s freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit if they would retake the SAT. As an added incentive, it offered $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid for those who raised their scores by at least 50 points. Seems like an interesting twist on the proverbial question: What would Jesus do?

Finding themselves the object of national ridicule, Baylor officials disowned the tactic and explained that the whole enterprise was to really designed to give them data on how best to distribute more merit scholarship aid. I’ll leave it to theologians to explore any issues relating to truth-telling.

Bottom line: Baylor’s SAT average jumped 10 points this year, a trivial help in moving up the rankings ladder. Bob Morse, U.S. News’ beleaguered director of data research said that the whole effort shows a “lack of understanding” of how the system works.

Third, think about the question being asked. In compiling its rankings, U.S. News asks the wrong questions – at least from the point of view of college-bound students and their parents. Most elements of the formula deal with inputs – the academic credentials of entering students, the number of fulltime faculty members, class sizes alumni giving rates and overall financial resources and so forth. These criteria say nothing about outcomes such as the amount of learning that takes place once a student has enrolled.

Nor do the rankings offer any insights into important process questions such as whether you will ever see a full professor before you declare a major in your junior year. Bob Morse would love to be able to provide such information, of course, but doing so would be much too costly (see first point above).

The warped nature of the numbers that go into the U.S. News formula might be no more than a tantalizing statistic but for the fact that the formula systematically discriminates against a whole class of institutions that is home to 40 percent of all students in higher education and two-thirds of those in four-year institutions: public universities.

In 1987 U.S. News listed eight public universities among the top 20 national universities, including UC-Berkeley at #5. This year only two publics – UC-Berkeley ( 24) and UCLA (25) – made the cut. The reasons are not hard to find. The U.S. News formula is heavily biased toward institutional wealth – read endowments and alumni giving – as well as other criteria that may or may not coincide with the particular mission of public institutions.

Returning to the relevance of all this for college-going students and their parents, I would simply ask: Why would you take seriously a set of rankings that systematically disparages the virtues of a sector that serves two-thirds of American students in four-year colleges and universities?

Fourth, use the U.S. News rankings for your own purposes. For any individual applicant, the important questions in picking a college have to do with “fit.” They have to do with personal preferences – urban or rural setting, bustling university versus intimate academic community – as well as with issues of learning style, such as how important it is to have seminars as well as large lectures. Rankings are no help on these questions.

That said, U.S. News does perform a service by publishing some useful comparative data – such as broad signals about the academic ability of entering students – in a user-friendly form. So check out the data but ignore the one-two-three ratings. Some of the ancillary lists, such as regional institutions, can be useful in identifying schools that you might want to check out.

But students and parents should be aware that other competing resources are now appearing that offer such data in more reliable and sophisticated form – without the ratings. These are being produced by higher education organizations that make no bones about their resentment that U.S. News has been able to market for its own benefit data that are, for all practical purposes, public and available to anyone willing to take the pains to search it out.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has launched a website that provides a wealth of statistics about private colleges and universities (www.ucan-network.org), and the Education Conservancy, a non-profit that seeks to improve the college admissions process, is developing its own online tool that would allow applicants to search a database of information about colleges, and encourage them to think critically about their options (www.educationconservancy.org).

It’s often observed that a college education is the second biggest expense that you will have after buying a house. So let’s think about that. No one starts to house-hunt by consulting a list of the 25 Top Houses in the area based on some list of objective criteria. Instead, you start out by focusing on the kind of house that will best suit the needs of your particular family and go from there. Objective data enter the picture – quality of construction, size of the rooms and so forth – but they are not the starting point.

Edward Fiske

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

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