Education by the Numbers: College Rankings Fatally Flawed

Archive by Erudera News Jul 22, 2003


Honestly, it’s hard to fault the magazine’s decision to drop consideration of college and university yield rates, which represent the percentage of students who accept admission offers from a given college. At least they are trying to improve their survey. An institution’s yield rate represents little more than a measure of popularity, hardly a sound basis upon which to choose a college. That’s not why U.S. News decided to drop yield rates, however. The motivation comes from the intense criticism that has been leveled at the growth in early-decision admission plans, which require the applicant to enroll if admission is offered.

The magazine’s editors believe — wrongly, I would argue — that early-decision plans are uniformly bad for students, and that removing an incentive for colleges to boost yield rates through early-decision admissions is good. If only it were that simple. In reality, early-decision plans can be good for students who know what college they want to attend. Unfortunately, US News’ change will do nothing to reform a ranking system that places too much emphasis each college’s endowment and tuition revenue and far too little on how those resources are spent to prepare students to be successful adults. In fact, since yield rate represented only 2 percent of each school’s total score, this change is unlikely to change the rankings in any way. What’s more, institutional selectivity, another statistic that U.S. News will continue to employ (and more heavily than it weighted yield rate), has the same flaws.

In his book “The Gatekeepers,” New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg provides an important reality check, taking readers behind the scenes of the admission process at a private, selective college. Steinberg tracks applicants to Wesleyan from their college search to decision day, and follows the admission officers charged with choosing among these young adults. The book reveals just how much chance and individual judgments shape who is admitted, who is denied and who is placed on the waiting list. It also demonstrates the needless anxiety students and their parents inflict on themselves as they measure the success of their college search by the ranking of the college that accepts them. The rankings say nothing about which school is best for any individual student.

As a social scientist, I am acutely aware that quantitative measures of quality are inherently imperfect. Combining many disparate measures into a single ranking does students a disservice by pretending it’s possible to reduce the multiple dimensions of a college experience to a single number. This can make schools of similar quality appear far apart. The difference in scores between schools among the “top 50 national liberal arts colleges” is so small as to be meaningless. At the same time a single ranking can obscure real differences.

Equally important is the fact that the rankings reflect a skewed picture of higher education. The ratings are overly reliant on measuring each college’s wealth and reputation, “measuring inputs such as faculty salaries, test scores of incoming freshmen and alumni giving rather than what kind of learning is really taking place on campus,” according to an article published by U.S. News itself.

For these reasons, some college presidents strongly oppose all rankings and refuse to submit data to the magazine. I don’t subscribe to that approach. As educators, we should provide data to the public while also making the effort to inform them about the limitations of college rankings. I have been active in several efforts by presidents of liberal arts colleges to raise public awareness about this issue and to develop better data on educational outcomes.

My institution, Wheaton, is one of roughly 350 colleges and universities participating in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a project that seeks to discover how students actually benefit from the programs and resources each institution offers. The survey asks first-year students and seniors about such things as academic challenge, student interaction with faculty, and the extent to which the school helps students to succeed.

I am committed to making this information available on the Web for high school students, their parents and anyone else who is interested. Higher education depends on a society that values access to information and so we need to honor that commitment ourselves. Other colleges and universities, including Beloit, Sweet Briar and Seton Hall, are also using this approach.

In the end, what matters is the quality of the educational experience and the many ways students’ lives are transformed. Students’ accomplishments, along with those of graduates and of faculty, bring an institution its most meaningful renown.

Dale Rogers Marshall is president of Wheaton College, a private liberal arts college in Norton, Mass.

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