Critiquing the College Rankings
By David E. Shi
President, Furman University
Americans love rankings. From athletic teams to restaurants, golf
courses to travel destinations, we want to know who is on top. Last
Friday, U.S. News & World Report fed this obsession by releasing its
annual college rankings with a fanfare usually reserved for Hollywood
movie premieres or the NFL draft.
As always, the "America's Best
Colleges" issue created a brief buzz across the nation. But the
"one-size-fits-all" rankings are more misleading then beneficial.
Institutions of higher education are so different in size and scope, in
purpose and aspiration, in environment and focus, in financial resources
and student demography, that they defy such all-encompassing
assessments. A school wonderfully appropriate for one student's
interests and aptitudes may not be well suited for another, a fact
obscured by the U.S. News ordinal rankings.
The weaknesses of the
magazine's rankings formula are well documented. Kevin Carey, the
author of a 22-page report commissioned by Education Sector, a nonprofit
think tank, concludes that 95 percent of the U.S. News variables focus
on just three factors: "fame, wealth, and exclusivity." Year in and year
out, the highest ranked colleges boast the largest endowments, charge
the highest tuition, and admit the fewest students.
Much of the
data the magazine uses is submitted by colleges and universities, and
numerous reports have revealed the ways in which some institutions
manipulate their numbers. For example, the magazine's emphasis on
admissions selectivity encourages institutions to increase their total
applications (and the number of applicants denied admission) solely as a
means of increasing their rankings. In addition, the most heavily
weighted element (25 percent) of the rankings formula is also the most
subjective: the reputation of a college as judged by the "impressions"
of the president, academic dean, and admissions director at its peer
institutions. In the case of Furman, we are asked by U. S. News each
year to "rank" 214 liberal arts colleges across the country, many of
which we know little or nothing about. This "reputational survey" is
essentially a guessing game pretending to be a precise survey.
rising chorus of complaints about the U.S. News rankings reached a
crescendo in June, when some 80 members of the Annapolis Group, an
association of national liberal arts colleges, announced they would no
longer participate in the reputational survey component of the
magazine's rankings issue. The group also decided to create an
alternative assessment model to provide prospective students and their
parents with more meaningful information about individual colleges.
Furman University, Lafayette College, Barnard College, Kenyon College,
and Trinity College (Connecticut) are among those that will no longer
"rank" their peers, as is Presbyterian College in South Carolina.
the same time that more and more colleges are bowing out of the most
subjective portion of the U.S. News rankings, they are providing more
substantive information to the public. I recently served as chair of the
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU),
an organization that represents nearly 1,000 private colleges and
universities. One of NAICU's primary projects has been the creation of
an on-line database that will allow prospective students to examine
fifty different statistics about the particular college of interest to
them. The new database, to be launched this fall, will include
information that Furman and other colleges have published on their web
sites for years, data such as the number of accepted students who
enrolled; graduation rates; and the average net tuition at a particular
college after grant assistance is included. In addition to the NAICU
information, Furman provides data about the quality of interaction
between students and faculty members, the satisfaction of students with
various aspects of their educational experience, and the percentage of
graduates who enroll in graduate and professional schools.
in some respects Furman has benefited from the publicity generated by
the U.S. News rankings in that we have consistently been "ranked" in the
top 50 national liberal arts colleges and universities and the highest
ranked private college in South Carolina. In coming years, the rankings
of Furman and the other colleges that will no longer fill out the
reputational survey for U. S. News may drop. But we believe that
providing prospective students with more meaningful information is a
much more important goal.
Years of experience have demonstrated
that the quality of a college is not primarily a function of how much it
spends, or how many applicants it rejects, or even its historic
reputation. College quality is instead the reflection of the dedication,
energy, and creativity of the institution's faculty and staff--and the
vitality of its students. Such factors are measured best by asking
current students and recent alumni to assess the actual quality of their
instruction and advising, the impact of their relationships with
faculty, staff, and other students, and the influence of their
extracurricular activities and experiences. That is what Furman, without
fanfare, is measuring and reporting -- and that is what we are always
seeking to improve.