Friday, August 17, 2007

Christmas Day in Higher Education

By Bryan O'Keefe

Well, today folks is Christmas Day for the higher education world – all of the colleges and universities will learn their new US News and World Report ranking and find out if they have been naughty or nice.

But as any astute reader of this blog knows, the rankings are more controversial than ever. A small but influential segment of the higher ed world is now refusing to cooperate with the magazine. Other education trade groups are looking at ways to devise their own rankings formulas.

Most colleges find themselves in a tremendous bind when it comes to the rankings. On the one hand, they publicly say that they don’t want the rankings to rule their world. They find problems with the methodology, they complain that only the elite schools get the best ranks, they say that the students and parents don’t really care about rankings, they protest that college is about much more than some silly list, and so on and so forth.

The dirty little secret though is that a lot of colleges and universities crave better rankings. Dropping on the USNWR list can endanger a college president’s job. They also worry that even if most students don’t give a hoot, the most attractive students certainly do pay attention and give weight to what the magazine publishes. And you better believe that when a school goes up in the rankings – or cracks the magic top 50 tier – that the school will broadcast this accomplishment from the highest mountain top. So, you have a situation akin to an alcoholic who is trying unsuccessfully to give up the bottle – he might swear it off, but just can’t stop going back.

So, how much stock should we really put into the rankings? From a theoretical perspective, there is nothing wrong with what USNWR does. Our own suspicion is that some of the colleges protesting do not want to be held accountable for what they are doing. They simply want parents and students to spend a small fortune on their education product for four years but then resist any demands that they actually quantify what in the world is going on during that time period. For better or for worse, USNWR provides an enormous public service in providing both parents and students with some sort of guidelines about how colleges are doing. Does it really matter if your school is ranked 31st or 41st? Probably not. But the difference between 31st and 111st is more likely to be real.

Our major beef with the USNWR rankings is not the idea, but the actual data that they use. They are largely measuring inputs, which would be akin to judging a car by the type of steel used in its production. USNWR defends itself by saying that this is the best available data and there is some truth to that. Never the less, maybe there is a chance that the accountability movement that is starting to sweep over higher ed will compel colleges and universities to provide even better data that can then be used to greatly improve the rankings.

For now however we are left with USNWR and a lot of college presidents and staff either cheering or crying, depending upon where they landed this morning. Christmas morning tends to make people happy even if they didn’t get all the presents they want – USNWR is a very cruel Santa Clause and really does leave lumps of coal in some colleges stockings. Given rising tuition and all of the other problems plaguing certain universities, this is probably the proper gift.

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