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In Defense of College Rankings

In a couple of weeks, I predict, the media will be filled with articles on rankings of colleges. Already, Princeton Review has come out with its effort, with attention focused on their “party schools of America” ranking. As a professor at a school that ranked #2 in those rankings (to the chagrin of the university administration), I must say I think they in a rough way convey good information to students as to schools that do not take learning overly seriously, emphasizing the socialization/consumption dimension of higher education. It is good for kids considering the University of Georgia and the University of Chicago to know that Georgia is a school that emphasizes academics far less than Chicago. Decades ago, Sigmund Romberg wrote a song for the musical “The Student Prince” with three words in its title: “Drink, Drink, Drink.” That describes the agenda for many students these days, so the Princeton Review serves its purposes.

But the more serious rankings will soon be released. Full disclosure: I am involved heavily in the construction of one of them, by Forbes, in conjunction with my Center for College Affordability and Productivity. However, I maintain friendly relations with Bob Morse and others at the leading US News & World Report ranking.

I predict that many in the Education Establishment will trash the rankings as soon as they are released. They will be labeled as non-scientific, elitist, poorly constructed, etc. etc. etc. Yet they will sell magazines, and Web-site hits for the sponsoring organizations will soar—because they are meeting a human need. People paying perhaps $100,000 or more over several years for college want to know what they are getting for their value, and they want that assessment to come from neutral third parties, not the promotional materials of the schools themselves. When you buy a house, usually you have a third party inspect it. When you buy a car, you read the rankings by J.D. Power or Consumer Reports. The same principle applies with colleges. The rankings give a sense of the relative quality of schools, imperfect as it may be.

I agree the rankings are imperfect. Moreover, I believe that the best rankings conceptually are “do-it-yourself” rankings that evaluate colleges on the criteria important to the would-be student, not the variables adjudged important by some organization. Yet the publishers of rankings hit on factors most individuals think are important, so, in a rough way, they convey very valuable information. If you are paying $50,000 a year to send your kid to either Harvard or George Washington U., other things equal, the quality of education is likely to be superior at Harvard, assuming the student can gain admittance. So the complaints of colleges are completely bogus. The main problem with the rankings is that colleges resist providing the kind of information that is important in assessing institutional quality:

  1. Do students learn a good deal while in school? Do seniors know more than freshmen?
  2. What is the probability that a freshman will graduate in four years?
  3. Do graduates of the school get good jobs upon graduation, or get into good graduate schools?
  4. Do students LIKE their institution—the classes and professors, the social dimensions, etc.
  5. Is the campus a safe environment—is there a lot of crime?

These are merely a few critical questions, but ones that colleges provide relatively little information about (there has been modest progress in answering these and other questions in recent years, but the key word is “modest.”) The Forbes/CCAP rankings have, in my humble and highly biased opinion, gone the furthest in getting at least partial answers to questions like those above, but even Forbes is stymied by the failure of schools to release information from instruments like the Collegiate Learning Assessment or the National Survey or Student Engagement. Great new web sites are finding ways to fill in some gaps, but more needs to be done.

In a perfect world, “accreditators” would become “information providers”, sort of like Consumer Reports or Underwriters Laboratories, giving potential users of college services good information that is consistent across institutions that would allow consumers to make informed choices. In the mean time, I, for one, applaud the rankers for doing their best to fill a real human need.

 

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