Long Live College Rankings
Tuesday, October 4, 2005; 8:48 AM
In the Atlantic Monthly's November issue, as part of the magazine's annual guide to college admissions, Reed College president Colin Diver celebrates his school's revolt against U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" rankings.
I don't have any connection with the U.S. News list. I even occasionally write for one of its competitors, Newsweek. But I don't like to hear complaints about its rankings from college presidents. In their distress at being graded like sides of beef, they seem to ignore the needs of debt-ridden, tuition-burdened parents like me who, along with taxpayers in the state college system, pay for their generous salaries and nice homes.
In his article, "Is There Life After Rankings?", available at theatlantic.com, Diver says how happy he is that his well-regarded liberal arts college in Portland, Ore., no longer fills out the voluminous forms that U.S. News sends to 1,400 colleges every year. I talked to him on the phone and found him to be a very bright and thoughtful person. But is he really doing the world a favor by resisting the list?
Consider this: What would life for students and parents searching for a college be like if there were no U.S. News rankings? I am old enough to remember that allegedly golden age before 1983, and I think families then were even more vulnerable to myth and marketing than they are today.
Without rankings like U.S. News, we would be back to judging schools by how famous they are. Harvard, Yale and Princeton would have even more clout than they already do, and students and their parents would have to struggle through the monster college guides (Peterson's, for example, is 3,087 pages) without any clue to, for instance, which schools have the best graduation rates or alumni support.
I admit that U.S. News and its competitors have done little to dampen the glow of the Ivies and other well-known colleges. There they are at or near the top of most lists. But right beside them are schools that most Americans have heard little about and could not even locate on a map. Among the top 20 national universities on the U.S. News 2006 list I see Washington University and Emory University. If you stopped people on the street how many would be able to tell you what cities they are in? (St. Louis and Atlanta)
U.S. News' top 20 liberal arts colleges have an even larger contingent of little-known schools. Pomona is my favorite example since I have a child there, and when I say the college's name, most people ask me where it is. On that list, I am willing to accept Amherst, Wellesley and Vassar as household names, but not Carleton or Davidson or Claremont McKenna. Those latter schools have excellent student faculty ratios and freshman retention rates, and deserve close attention, which is what the U.S. News rankings give them.
It is important to note that Diver's school, Reed, is to my mind better known than Haverford or Harvey Mudd or several other top 20 schools. This is one reason, I think, why Diver doesn't mind tossing the U.S. News questionnaire in the trash. His school has a reputation for independent minded students and talented faculty that goes back several generations. Wherever it pops up in the rankings, bright students with a rebellious streak are going to look for it.
In his article, Diver says U.S. News creates "powerful incentives to manipulate data and distort institutional behavior for the sole or primary purpose of inflating one's score." This may be true, but Diver offers little evidence, and he neglects to remind us what college data was like before the rankings. In those days, when I was applying, each college presented its numbers in its own way, and making comparisons was very difficult. U.S. News forced everyone to present their data in the same way, once again helping us parents and our children make informed choices.
Diver says "the urge to improve one's ranking creates an irresistible pressure toward homogeneity." When I asked for examples, he said law school admissions (he is a former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School) are more focused on college grade point averages because of the U.S. News law school ratings. But I think undergraduate institutions, if anything, have more reason than ever to preserve their unique qualities. The more they distinguish themselves from their competitors, the more likely they will attract applicants and look good on the U.S. News selectivity scale.
I concede that Diver is right when he says the rankings "reinforce a view of education as strictly instrumental to extrinsic goals such as prestige or wealth." But since the GI Bill turned higher education into an attainable goal for the middle class, that is the way most of us have thought about colleges, and the U.S. News rankings didn't change that.
Two key U.S. News executives, education editor Ben Wildavsky and director of data research Robert Morse, sent me, at my request. their own view of the Diver piece. They say that although Reed ignores their questionnaire, it still puts nearly all the data that U.S. News needs on the Reed web site or sends it to other organizations like the American Association of University professors. The only rankings data it keeps secret is its financial resources, forcing U.S. News to make an estimate based on average expenditure per student at comparable schools.
The U.S. News executives say Diver was wrong to say "one can only guess" at how U.S. News calculates its rankings. They say the technical details have been distributed many times at annual meetings of the Association for Institutional Research and the list's yardstick described clearly in the magazine. The magazine's staff checks the data they receive by comparing it to data from other sources and asking schools to explain sudden changes in average SAT scores, acceptance rates and other measuring points.
One of Diver's critiques, however, stands out as surprising and astute. On the U.S. News list, Reed (number 47) ranks below many liberal arts colleges with similarly strong reputations because Reed's graduation rate is not as good. I checked the collegeresults.org website, not affiliated with U.S. News, and found that only 71.4 percent of Reed students graduated in six years or less, compared to 91.7 percent for Swarthmore, 91.9 percent for Haverford and 96.8 percent for Amherst.
That is a significant difference, and it hurts Reed in the ratings, in some ways unfairly because it reflects at least in part some of the college's most appealing traditions. Reed tends to admit adventurous students who are more likely to drop out if that makes sense to them. Reed also appears to have resisted much of the grade inflation that characterizes our best schools, putting more students in academic trouble that could delay their graduation. Divers says professors do not give Reed students their grades. They can ask to see them, but in the Reed undergraduate culture that is considered uncool. The persistent lobbying for better grades on Ivy League campuses does not happen so often at Reed.
To his credit, Diver does not oppose rankings in general. He welcomes more lists like the new Washington Monthly rankings based on public service programs. He says he would be far less worried if U.S. News were less of a juggernaut, and there were many similarly famous college assessments, each appealing to different tastes.
I agree. I rank high schools, and have done some limited college ranking. Those who say journalists shouldn't publish rankings are essentially saying that our readers are too stupid to judge the worthiness of such exercises. I, on the other hand, think nearly all of us are capable of looking at a ranked list of colleges in a magazine and not taking everything in it for granted.
So let's not stifle rankings. Let's have more. That will lead to more arguments, like the interesting one I had with Diver, and help us figure out how to make the system provide the best information to the most people, and find the colleges that are just right for us.