Do College Rankings Belong on the Sports Pages?

May 18, 2009

Washington — College rankings may not be to blame for the decline in the quality of higher education in the United States, but they are doing little, if anything, to help. That was the nearly unanimous consensus of a panel of speakers from across the ideological spectrum who gathered here today at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss how the nation assesses the performance of its colleges.

Speakers suggested a variety of alternative approaches, including Europe’s lead in setting learning-outcome standards for universities in more than 40 countries and the Canadian example of letting students set up their own college rankings systems.

Popular rankings of colleges, such as those by U.S. News & World Report, are principally entertainment and belong on the sports pages, said Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Instead of worrying about superficial measures of performance, he said, American colleges need to harmonize degree cycles and university systems in the same way that many European countries are doing through the Bologna Process.

Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, had less harsh criticism of popular rankings but said the criteria were too limited and failed to consider a much wider range of values that actual students might consider about a college. He encouraged students to set up their own rankings online, similar to an effort that has begun in Canada.

In between the two men, sat Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who touted her organization’s efforts to encourage standards based on learning “outcomes,” such as how students demonstrate what they know, as opposed to mere “outputs,” such as graduation rates and credits earned. —Eric Kelderman