Breaking Ranks

By Katherine Haley Will
Monday, July 9, 2007

A majority of the 80 college presidents attending the Annapolis Group's annual meeting last month expressed their intention not to participate in U.S. News & World Report's annual college ranking survey. Their decision did not reflect a lack of concern about providing accurate, comprehensive information to help students and their families make decisions about college. Quite the opposite.

These academic leaders (the Annapolis Group is an association of 125 of the nation's leading independent liberal arts colleges) believe the choice about which college or university to attend is vital -- and too important to leave to an inherently flawed rankings methodology. The largest single factor in the U.S. News rating formula is a reputational score compiled from a survey that asks college presidents, provosts and admissions deans to rank schools' academic programs on a scale of one to five. It is unrealistic to expect academic officials to know enough about hundreds of institutions to fairly evaluate the quality of their programs.

By contrast, 1 percent of the U.S. News ratings formula is assigned to student-to-faculty ratios, which many faculty members and students consider the most important factor in educational experience. And 7 percent of the formula is based on average faculty salaries, a metric that may affect student satisfaction negatively because of the high correlation between salary and research, according to Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, who has done extensive research on educational excellence. (Regrettably, high salaries are often associated with excellence in research rather than a commitment to teaching.)

I and my colleagues in education believe it is important to provide students with information that will help them make informed choices about where to go to college. We already provide detailed information about our institutions to the government, much of which is publicly accessible on the Education Department's Web site. But we can and should do more.

For that reason, the Annapolis Group has agreed to work with other higher-education organizations to develop a Web-based resource that will present accessible, comprehensive and quantifiable data to help guide students as they select a college. The information will include important data such as average class size and majors, as well as some reporting of student-learning measures.

We have no intention, however, to produce a ranking of our institutions. The fact is, an educational experience can't be reduced to one number, a school's so-called rank. The simplicity of a rank is understandably more appealing than spending hours poring over college catalogues and visiting campuses, but myriad complex variables can't be reduced to a single number.

We urge students to compare schools on a variety of factors (some of those in U.S. News are helpful, such as class sizes and student-faculty ratios; some, such as the heavily weighted reputational score, are not). They should visit campuses and go on what feels like a good match rather than relying on filtered or secondhand information. We must encourage students to look inside their hearts and trust their instincts when it comes to choosing a college, not whether parents or friends think a university is cool or prestigious.

College is not a prize to be won; it's an experience to be lived, and to learn from. In the final analysis -- which campus feels right? which offers the programs and experiences that are of most interest to a student? -- where an individual can imagine being challenged and inspired is more important than outside opinions.

Our members believe they have an obligation to provide meaningful and useful data on our colleges, free of charge, that reflect the best research about what is important in higher education, including some measurable learning outcomes. No single information source can fully capture the essence of an educational experience, but we believe there is ample room for improvement.

The writer is president of Gettysburg College and chairwoman of the Annapolis Group, an organization of the nation's leading independent liberal arts colleges.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company