Monday, August 23, 2010

In Defense of College Rankings

By Richard Vedder

In a couple of weeks, I predict, the media will be filled with articles on rankings of colleges. Already, Princeton Review has come out with its effort, with attention focused on their "party schools of America" ranking. As a professor at a school that ranked #2 in those rankings (to the chagrin of the university administration), I must say I think they in a rough way convey good information to students as to schools that do not take learning overly seriously, emphasizing the socialization/consumption dimension of higher education. It is good for kids considering the University of Georgia and the University of Chicago to know that Georgia is a school that emphasizes academics far less than Chicago. Decades ago, Sigmund Romberg wrote a song for the musical "The Student Prince" with three words in its title: "Drink, Drink, Drink." That describes the agenda for many students these days, so the Princeton Review serves its purposes.

But the more serious rankings will soon be released. Full disclosure: I am involved heavily in the construction of one of them, by Forbes, in conjunction with my Center for College Affordability and Productivity. However, I maintain friendly relations with Bob Morse and others at the leading US News & World Report ranking.

I predict that many in the Education Establishment will trash the rankings as soon as they are released. They will be labeled as non-scientific, elitist, poorly constructed, etc. etc. etc. Yet they will sell magazines, and Web-site hits for the sponsoring organizations will soar—because they are meeting a human need. People paying perhaps $100,000 or more over several years for college want to know what they are getting for their value, and they want that assessment to come from neutral third parties, not the promotional materials of the schools themselves. When you buy a house, usually you have a third party inspect it. When you buy a car, you read the rankings by J.D. Power or Consumer Reports. The same principle applies with colleges. The rankings give a sense of the relative quality of schools, imperfect as it may be.

I agree the rankings are imperfect. Moreover, I believe that the best rankings conceptually are "do-it-yourself" rankings that evaluate colleges on the criteria important to the would-be student, not the variables adjudged important by some organization. Yet the publishers of rankings hit on factors most individuals think are important, so, in a rough way, they convey very valuable information. If you are paying $50,000 a year to send your kid to either Harvard or George Washington U., other things equal, the quality of education is likely to be superior at Harvard, assuming the student can gain admittance. So the complaints of colleges are completely bogus. The main problem with the rankings is that colleges resist providing the kind of information that is important in assessing institutional quality:

1. Do students learn a good deal while in school? Do seniors know more than freshmen?
2. What is the probability that a freshman will graduate in four years?
3. Do graduates of the school get good jobs upon graduation, or get into good graduate schools?
4. Do students LIKE their institution—the classes and professors, the social dimensions, etc.
5. Is the campus a safe environment—is there a lot of crime?

These are merely a few critical questions, but ones that colleges provide relatively little information about (there has been modest progress in answering these and other questions in recent years, but the key word is "modest.") The Forbes/CCAP rankings have, in my humble and highly biased opinion, gone the furthest in getting at least partial answers to questions like those above, but even Forbes is stymied by the failure of schools to release information from instruments like the Collegiate Learning Assessment or the National Survey or Student Engagement. Great new web sites are finding ways to fill in some gaps, but more needs to be done.

In a perfect world, "accreditators" would become "information providers", sort of like Consumer Reports or Underwriters Laboratories, giving potential users of college services good information that is consistent across institutions that would allow consumers to make informed choices. In the mean time, I, for one, applaud the rankers for doing their best to fill a real human need.


RWW said...

A pre-emptive strike?

"If you are paying $50,000 a year to send your kid to either Harvard or George Washington U., other things equal, the quality of education is likely to be superior at Harvard, assuming the student can gain admittance."

Superior to what? What is the standard?

The conventional wisdom and mores must be tested or we continue a "Higher Education Paradox of Value."

I wonder how many Ivy graduates went to work on Wall Street and misplaced whatever ethics, values, and principles they may have had in the first place? I wonder if we are presently living with the fruits of their superior education? Maybe Harvard is superior... but are it's students superior as a result of attending Harvard?

On Monday, May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis. In response to this, Ohio University experienced riots. Each year, in the Spring Quarter, OU students poured out of the bars and onto State Street effectively blocking the street. Cars were turned over and destroyed. Police were pelted with beer bottles and assorted other projectiles. What started out in 1970 as a sympathetic protest-turned riot became an unprincipled excuse for an out of control street "party" influenced by outside interests each year until the last incident in 1977. I was a freshman in '77 and was in the crowd in the street. Cars were turned over. And those that couldn't be turned over were jumped on until the roof of the car was completely collapsed among other things. When the police told the crowd to disperse, the beer bottles and other things such as rocks were hurled at the police. The police responded with wooden bullets (knee knockers). The intention with wooden bullets is to ricochet the bullets off the ground and into the crowd. But they were not used in the prescribed manner. As proof, the person(s) living in room 319 in Reed Hall (on the East Green) can open the window and see a big dent on the right side of the window frame. The bottom line is that a lot of people were hurt and hospitalized. The period of time from 1970 to 1977+ earned OU the party reputation. Since the drinking age has been raised to 21 since those days, I doubt OU deserves the high party school ranking and I am not proud of such distinction. But then, students have a choice to make and decide why they are in college - to learn or party and balance at least balance learning with drinking and boinking.

RWW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RWW said...

The Contrarian View

Why do we rank colleges and universities? I suppose the answer to that is so post-secondary candidates and their parents can believe they are choosing the best university, but not necessarily the best school for particular candidates. Based on the latest college rankings, I went to the wrong school. I should have gone to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, or Stanford.

Based on the rankings I wasted my time and my parent’s money for an undergraduate degree at Ohio University. But I am not alone. If college rankings are important, than everyone who has attended a university not in the top 25 of the rankings wasted their time and money too.

I read a story about a woman’s child who graduated from HS this year and the woman sent her kid to an IVY because she believes the diploma will be her child’s e-ticket. That is her sole rationale for sending her kid to a particular college.

Do college rankings drive the cost of higher education higher? I believe they do, and I believe this is an unintended consequence. The rankings would have one believe that they need to spend more money to attend the elite schools because if the student attends a university like Ohio University, they don’t stand a chance in hell of getting a good, high paying job upon graduation. So conventional (traditional) wisdom tells us that more money spent on a brand name elite school is a ticket to becoming the next (community organizing) president.

But the biggest hole in all rankings is the absence of the value of attending a top 25 school – or any other school for that matter. Actually this isn’t a hole, it’s one colossal and glaring omission.

These elite schools listed in the top 25 probably receive thousands of applications for admissions. But Harvard only selects 7% to 8% of total admissions applications. So I come back to the “Paradox of Value” where students and parents believe that the more something costs the better it must be. Just like people who pay large sums of money for a diamond and complain about their water bill. They value the diamond over life sustaining water because a “big rock” is simply a status symbol. Same for being able to say, “I went to Harvard.”

So I believe college rankings are little more than a popularity contest. Why not just shutter the 75 out of 100 bottom dwellers?

I suppose a college could become an elite school if they tighten selectivity to 10% and raise the cost of attending the school to $50,000.

Until rankings establish the value of education for the ranked schools, the rankings are of little value themselves to any sensible person.