Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Rankings: Clemson's Costly Goal

by Luke Myers

There is a very interesting piece in today’s Chronicle describing the extent to which Clemson University has guided management decisions based on the criteria used in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. The article reports that nearly all policies at Clemson are driven by how they will help the institution rise in rank, according to the former director of institutional research at Clemson, Catherine Watt. This has included doubling tuition in the past ten years, manipulating class sizes from 23 students to 19, letting classes larger than 50 students grow unchecked and rating all other universities as “below average” in the academic-reputation surveys.

Watt’s descriptions of Clemson’s actions and policies should give pause to all who claim that rankings have little effect on higher education. Even if Clemson is an extreme example, popular college rankings clearly provide incentives that affect the decision making of higher education administrators.

Of course, that is the point of college rankings. We want rankings to affect management decisions, but we want these effects to benefit, not harm students. Watts argued that Clemson’s single-minded policies did benefit students, citing smaller classes, more professors and an increased graduation rate from 72 percent to 78 percent over the past decade. But the marginal benefit of reducing class sizes by four students in order to come in under the cut-off of 20 must be infinitesimal. Allowing a class of 50 to grow to 100 probably does have a significant cost. And while an increase in the graduation rate of 6 percent is laudable, it strikes me as a hard case to make that even combining all of these benefits justifies a doubling of tuition.

That is why, as I have stated before, we need better rankings. New rankings based on criteria that are directly related to educational practices would make single-mindedness about moving up in the rankings a boon to students in the form of increased academic quality without upward spiraling tuition costs. For ideas about how ranking criteria could be better designed, see my report here.

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