Official dissent in the ranks

February 21, 1997

UNITEDSTATES higher education officials are fighting a losing battle with popular but controversial independent college and university ratings guides in an effort to ensure that they contain accurate and consistent information.

The College Board, a national association of universities and colleges, has devised a standard questionnaire by which each school can report such measures as its acceptance standards, faculty-to-student ratios, enrolment and financial information to consumer magazines and guidebooks.

Several publications annually compile enormously successful guides to college, ranking them in the same way other magazines rank cars, appliances or sports teams. The most popular is the America's Best Colleges guide compiled annually by the weekly US News & World Report.

Robert Morse, director of research for America's Best Colleges, which gives a numerical ranking to each of 1,422 universities and colleges, said: "The college choice in the United States is immeasurable, and the number of institutions any person has to choose from is enormous. If you want to compare schools easily without the marketing influence of a school's own publications, then you need someone to evaluate them for you independently."

But among their many criticisms of the guides, colleges and universities complain that their competitors include foreign students when they furnish the average standardised test scores of applicants, or inflate the size of their faculty by adding part-time instructors and non-teaching researchers. "I think the whole rankings game has been a problem, but the colleges have helped to create the problem," said Maureen Matheson, executive director of guidance publications at the College Board.

In collaboration with US News, Money magazine and other publications, the board has now designed a standardised form to collect consistent information in 41 areas from comparable colleges and universities.

The move has reduced, but by no means eliminated, criticism. "What these guides do is lay on top of these objective statistics a subjective ranking process," Ms Matheson said. "They decide if it's more important to have more books in your library or have more people apply and get accepted. Who are they done by? They're done by the media. And people tend to feel that they're very objective, and that's just not true."

Less than 8 per cent of 158 administrators at small, four-year liberal arts colleges said they thought the US News guide accurately described their institution, according to a survey by the Northern Illinois University's public opinion laboratory.

The president of Alma College in Michigan in January asked his counterparts at 480 other liberal arts schools to boycott requests by US News for their opinions of each other's schools. These so-called "academic reputation" evaluations are used to calculate the rankings.

A magazine spokesman said the move was "sour grapes" because Alma was ranked in the second-to-last tier of national liberal arts colleges.

Students at 75 universities and colleges have formed the "Forget US News Coalition", or FUNC, and asked the magazine to list schools alphabetically and not by numerical rank.

Nick Thompson, vice president of the student association at Stanford University and a founder of the anti-ranking movement, said: "The rankings are too powerful. Millions of people take them very seriously, but they're fundamentally a very silly thing. A college education is not a dishwasher. You can take the qualities of a dishwasher and you can say this is what makes a good dishwasher. But what makes a good university for me and what makes a good university for somebody else may be two very different things."

Mr Morse responded that the students and administrators who object to college guides like his are uneasy about their influence.

But Mr Thompson said the guides are simply much too influential. He said some universities and colleges are making policy decisions "not because of what is best for education, but for what will look good in the rankings".

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