Here is a guest post from Mark Gordon, president of Defiance College.

((Courtesy of Defiance College.))

As president of Defiance College, I’m not naïve about how the admissions process works. And, if you spoke to many presidents, they would tell you that the admissions process at many colleges has been profoundly impacted by the national rankings issued by publications such as U.S. News & World Report, to name the best-known. A few months after I started as president at Defiance in 2009, the new rankings came out, and Defiance had done very well.  I was urged to issue a press release touting our success. Instead, I wrote a column entitled, “Defiance College Just Shot Up in the Rankings:  Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Care.” 

Anyone who looks at what goes into the rankings knows that, on many levels, they are flawed. After all, what is the best college for one student is not necessarily the best for another. But there are many other problems with the rankings. To give just a few examples: 

●The rankings measure how other college presidents rank the prestige of colleges in their geographic region. Why “prestige” matters to the quality of one’s education still puzzles me, but, even if it did, I can tell you honestly that as a president who receives this ranking questionnaire, I am totally unqualified to complete it.  In fact, I throw it away each year. College presidents know a lot about our individual colleges, and maybe about a handful of others. We are not at all qualified to rank dozens and dozens of colleges by any measure other than how they did in the rankings the previous year.

●The rankings look at the “quality” of students entering a college.   I could dedicate an entire different post to disputing whether measures such as ACT or GPA actually measure quality.  But even if they did, does it really make sense to judge a college by what the students are like before they even get there?  What does that tell us about how a college adds value to the students’ education when they attend?

●As indicated above, the rankings look at selectivity in admissions.  The argument seems to be that the best colleges are those that are only willing to accept the students who prove they need educational services the least.  As someone once suggested to me, that is akin to a hospital gaining in prestige by announcing that it would only accept the healthiest of prospective patients.

I always thought that education was supposed to be about providing opportunity.  We in higher education have somehow permitted the rankings and our broader culture to confuse excellence with exclusivity.   As the hospital example shows, how exclusive you are should not prove anything about how excellent you are.

At Defiance College, we have experimented with what happens when you decide to ignore the rankings.  What kind of education can you provide when you focus in admissions not on asking, “what can this student do to improve our prestige and ranking?” but rather, “what can we as a college do to positively impact this student’s future?”  The result has been liberating.  We have created a different model of undergraduate education geared toward giving students the best of all worlds:  the benefits of the personalized attention that only a small liberal arts-based college (with a student/faculty ratio of 12:1) can bring, together with a world of opportunities.  That translates into:

●Working with students to develop individualized Personal Success Plans for each student’s four years of academic, extracurricular, and other activities.

●Giving students in different majors hands-on distinctive experiences that link what goes on in the classroom with the realities of the world beyond.  So, criminal justice and forensic science majors investigate cold cases for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Detroit; business, marketing and accounting majors receive hands-on experience creating and running at least two different businesses; education majors obtain hands-on classroom experience as early as their freshman year; environmental majors manage a 250-acre wildlife preserve as a living laboratory;  graphic design students can run their own graphic design studio; sport management majors actually attain experience by running a major sporting facility – the list goes on and on.

●Providing students, through a separate legally incorporated student-run nonprofit, the opportunity to create, develop, run and manage their own service projects, from doing micro-finance lending in Jamaica to jointly operating with two hospitals a free primary-care health clinic.

● Guaranteeing every full-time student in good standing an international opportunity in their junior and senior years.  In this year alone, Defiance students are traveling (and, in many cases doing research or service projects) in Ghana, Cambodia, Belize, Costa Rica and Central Europe.

●Giving students opportunities to go to operas, ballets, concerts, art museums, historical sites, Broadway shows in places such as Chicago, New York, Washington and Nashville.

Isn’t it striking that not one of these opportunities or initiatives is reflected in any kind of ranking?  When you list characteristics that make a college special, how far down the list do you have to get before coming to something that can be measured quantitatively in a ranking?

Jettisoning concern about rankings at Defiance College has enabled us to focus on providing an exceptional experience for our students.  And it also enables us to give numerous students from around the country the opportunity they deserve to receive a high-quality education.  About 45 percent of our students are the first generation in their family to attend college.  And we now have the flexibility to admit students whose scores might hurt our rankings, but for whom a college education is that critical opportunity enabling them to transform their lives.   Isn’t expanding, rather than selectively limiting, that opportunity supposed to be what education is all about?