Colleges’ ‘Love-Hate Relationship’ With Rankings Pervades ACE Report

Except for those who’ve been vacationing on Neptune since last summer, most everyone’s heard about the Obama administration’s proposed college-ratings system, and the American Council on Education’s dislike of it.

Whatever your view, it’s worth reading this new report from the ACE, which offers various objections to the plan. One concern: The line between rating colleges and ranking them is, the report says, “a blurry one.” (Translation: “We don’t want this ratings system to turn into yet another big, bad rankings monster, do we, people?”)

This is a fascinating argument. After all, some institutions that compose ACE’s membership have long embraced various strategies for improving their standing in U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide. The same guide that’s widely described by college presidents as, you know, a big, bad rankings monster. “A love-hate relationship,” the report calls it.

That relationship drives all sorts of institutional behavior, much of it self-serving. Although positive campus improvements have been attributed to rankings, the report says, “they are more often criticized for incenting institutional behavior that further stratifies an already hierarchical system of higher education.”

The report offers a pretty good rendering of that phenomenon and its consequences. As I read it, though, the phrase “save us from ourselves!” popped into my head. For I’ve noticed that presidents and enrollment chiefs often blame U.S. News for the strategies, such as enhancing selectivity, that they surely would embrace even if U.S. News and its many competitors suddenly vanished.

In the end, all the ratings and rankings systems in the world might matter only so much to most consumers. The report cites data from the UCLA Higher Education Research Center’s annual Freshman Survey showing that students, especially those from low-income families, don’t rely heavily on rankings when choosing a college.

This brings us to a question: Is more—or better—information really what applicants need the most? For a thoughtful answer, be sure to read this recent article by my colleague Beckie Supiano.

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