Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rankings Misdeeds Yet Again

by Jonathan Robe

This past week college rankings (particularly those of US News and World Report) have taken something of hit. In addition to the on-going fiasco at Clemson, Inside Higher Ed reported on Monday that the University of Southern California has misreported to US News the number of its engineering faculty who are members of the National Academy of Engineering. USC claims to have 34 faculty with that distinction while the website of the Academy gives only 22. It turns out that a good number of its faculty USC claimed were not full-time faculty, the definition US News uses for the variable in its graduate ranking of engineering programs. Thus, USC has effectively manipulated its ranking (though whether this caused a substantial change remains to be seen).

These scandals provide us with further examples of the importance, usefulness, and difficulties of college rankings in modern American higher education. After all, if schools willfully "manipulate" data to improve their own ranking, then the schools do view the rankings as both useful and significant in assessing colleges for prospective students and the public. In one sense, though, the rankings played a crucial role in this instance in exposing the misdeeds of the school when a grad student first noticed the discrepancy. Rankings are fulfilling their role in increasing transparency and accountability in higher education, albeit in an imperfect way.

Instead of eliminating college rankings, we at CCAP argue for an improved ranking philosophy and methodology. The college rankings we have teamed up with Forbes to produce is a step in this direction. We seek to evaluate schools based on the outcomes of the college education rather than on the inputs that US News uses for their rankings. Our approach has the benefit of both evaluating what really matters when it comes to education and of being far less susceptible to direct institutional manipulation.

What USC did does nothing to add to the value of the education for the students who attend. While rankings can and should influence the way a school is run, that influence should never extend to a misrepresentation of the school's quality. And schools should seek to make the education better for the students; what USC did decreased the value of the students' education by promising them something which really doesn't exist.

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