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Picking a College Shouldn't Be a Numbers Game

August 25, 2003|Peter Hopkins

Even though U.S. undergraduates are now trudging back to campuses, the grades are already in. The U.S. News & World Report hitting home mailboxes this week logged the magazine's annual assessment of the nation's top schools, with Princeton and Harvard sharing this year's top honor. However, despite the magazine's recent retooling of its popular college rankings system, this system has come no closer to reflecting true academic excellence and may even harm it.

The U.S. News rankings rely on a weighted average of such factors as peer assessment, the student retention rate, student selectivity, the alumni giving rate and financial resources. By the magazine's own admission, the rankings are subjective. The problem isn't that the system involves subjectivity but that such a subjective system is becoming the benchmark of what constitutes good education.

With the rankings holding such popular sway, university administrators eager to enhance their school's reputation have every incentive to do so strictly according to the U.S. News guidelines. Virginia Commonwealth University is one of a growing number of lesser-ranked schools to offer cash bonuses to administrators based on performance in the rankings.

As college administrators struggle to tailor their policies to U.S. News' one-size-fits-all model of good education, the costs of doing so is becoming clearer. The coalition of colleges that petitioned U.S. News to drop the "admissions yield" factor, which measures the ratio of matriculating students to total acceptances, argued that this criterion was largely responsible for the staggering increase in binding early decision acceptances. Though "admissions yield" accounts for only 2% of the overall ranking score, it has induced many schools to accept upward of 50% of their classes early, despite concerns that early decisions dilute the quality of the incoming class because it is believed that top applicants tend to wait to apply.

Further, given that peer assessment (university administrators judging their competition) is the single largest factor (25%) in determining the U.S. News rankings, it should come as no surprise that universities now find themselves outbidding each other for the services of academic superstars. In the competition for big-name professors, light or even nonexistent teaching loads are being used to sweeten the pot. It doesn't take a pollster to quantify the educational value in that.

Behind almost every factor considered by U.S. News is a negative incentive, a misleading claim or a thinly veiled bias. Although the magazine considers the percentage of a school's faculty who are employed full time, for instance, it does not also consider how much of the teaching is done by these faculty members and how much by their less-seasoned graduate assistants.

Taking into account average per-student spending also fails to account for considerable variations in investments across departments in the same institution. U.S. News would have us believe that a school's English department nonetheless benefits when the bulk of a school's resources are directed to the sciences. And, by assigning weight to the rate of alumni giving, U.S. News discriminates against the public universities whose private donations are limited.

A more comprehensive measure of academic quality -- one that considers a broader scope of factors such as student satisfaction, quality of life and post-graduate job placement -- could offer a source of reliable information for prospective students and promote truly constructive competition among schools.

A still more fundamental remedy might be found in eliminating rank ordering entirely, relying instead on a system that would place universities into classes. For example, Tier 1 would be the top 25 schools without any ranking within that tier. Such a system would preserve an element of the hierarchy that helps to simplify the college selection process while acknowledging that the distinctions between top universities cannot be adequately captured by a basic numbered ordering.

Until U.S. News embraces a new system, choosing from the top may just mean settling for second-best.

Peter Hopkins is an editor for the Harvard Crimson.

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