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The No. 1 reason to rank colleges

Students and their parents have much to consider when picking a school. Starting with a few facts in U.S. News can't hurt.

July 08, 2007|Michael Skube | MICHAEL SKUBE, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in criticism, teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina.

SUMMER IS THE TIME when many colleges and universities are in relative hibernation. But on many campuses across the country, senior administrators will be meeting to discuss a matter that gets more sensitive by the year: U.S. News & World Report's rankings of American colleges and universities, published each year in August.

Presidents and provosts at many schools -- among them, Barnard, Sarah Lawrence and Kenyon -- are chafing at the magazine's rankings and their role in the decisions that parents and high school students make. More than chafe, they are calling on their peers to no longer fill out the long questionnaire sent them each year by U.S. News.

"Frankly, it had bubbled up to the point of, why should we do this work for them?" Barnard President Judith P. Shapiro told the New York Times. "It is a way of saying, this is not our project."

Another academic leader, Sarah Lawrence President Michele Tolela Myers, wrote in the Washington Post in March that U.S. News had foisted on higher education the superficiality of a media culture. "U.S. News benefits from our appetite for shortcuts, sound-bites and top 10 lists," she wrote. "The magazine has parlayed the appearance of unbiased measurements into a profitable bottom line."

True enough. But it is also partly beside the point. Colleges and universities long ago entered the marketing game, and a necessary part of that game is attracting consumers. The inevitable consequence, with colleges as much as with anything else, is the emergence of guidebooks, information clearinghouses and self-appointed arbiters. U.S. News' survey, for all its imperfections, performs the useful service of comparing apples with academic apples. In some ways, one might even argue that its nuts-and-bolts consumer information is at least as practical as the bar charts and numbers a car buyer might find in Consumer Reports or Car and Driver.

What factors go into the rankings? Student retention accounts for 25% at schools U.S. News calls master's level and those that provide primarily the bachelor's degree (called "comprehensive" schools, oddly enough). At liberal arts schools such as Pomona College or Williams College and at "national" universities such as Stanford or UC Berkeley, student retention accounts for 20%.

At all schools, regardless of category, "faculty resources" (class size, faculty salaries, student/faculty ratio, among other things) constitute another 20%. Throw in "student selectivity" and you have an additional 15%. Financial resources (student aid) contributes 10%, and the percentage of alumni donating to the school accounts for 5%. At national and top-tier liberal arts schools, a further 5% is determined by the percentage of students who are expected to graduate.

This is utilitarian stuff -- mind-numbingly dull, not always revelatory, but usually worth knowing. The magazine calls these data points, and they don't change significantly from one year to the next.

What does change -- and this is what makes the rankings controversial -- is "peer assessment." U.S. News asks each university's three top academic administrators -- usually the president, the provost and the vice president for academic affairs -- to rate other schools. Those ratings account for 25% of a school's rank, and they might be as subjective as a sportswriter's ranking of top 10 college football teams -- some of which he's never seen play.

This is what many presidents of liberal arts colleges object to, and one can see why. Americans no sooner take to something than they start drawing up top 10 lists, from beaches to steakhouses to mutual funds. No one knows better than a sports fan the interest such parlor games churn up -- or their unreliability. The presidents are right to complain that such ratings focus on who's up and who's down, not on what a college might offer.

Sometimes just the facts will do, and the U.S. News manual offers them in great heaps. When it comes to college admission, what could be more revealing than those factors on which a school places the highest premium, those it considers important but not paramount and those it merely takes into consideration -- or doesn't consider at all? Sarah Lawrence, for example, does not take into consideration SAT or ACT scores. Don't even send 'em, it tells high school students.

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