We know who's top - but now we must rate the rankings

Prospective students in the US need a consumer guide to make sense of the plethora of college listings, argues Robert Johnson Jr

October 2, 2008

Late August can be a trying time for college administrators. It is when US News & World Report, the late-summer elephant on campus, publishes its rankings, and officials at not-so-highly ranked schools have to offer explanations to their constituents. Even if you work at a top-50 college such as mine, folks still want to know why we can't be ranked even higher.

Once again, the results are out. And you know what? It hasn't been as big a deal this year. We have had less explaining to do. This has had less to do with our rank and more to do with the level of trust the public seem to have in the rankings themselves.

For example, our trustees and alumni seem to know that colleges and universities have learnt how to "game" the various rankings, ratings and surveys. Whether through submitting idiosyncratic responses with qualifications beside them or by joining institutional classifications just to enter their university in a "lighter-weight" class, the tricks of the trade are not so secret and, really, not all that tricky, and the pressure to be highly ranked appears to be abating.

Increasingly, rankings, ratings and surveys have become irrelevant - an attractive nuisance that momentarily grabs our attention but never figures into our strategy for delivering value to our students. In fact, less than half of all college administrators fill out the peer-analysis section, which accounts for a large part of US News' valuation. They see the reputation category of the rankings as a mere beauty contest, with college presidents voting on the quality of hundreds of schools with which they are completely unfamiliar.

Ironically, dissatisfaction with the rankings has not discouraged their publication but rather proliferated their number, each added to the pile in the hopes of attracting the attention lost by its predecessors. The latest, produced by Forbes magazine, is so flawed as to be laughable, but there it is in print. If families find rankings based on RateMyProfessors.com and Who's Who to be credible, then more power to Forbes for its insight.

The good news is that these publications mean less each year to prospective students and parents involved in choosing a college. Potential students know that they are geared to sell magazines. Eyes are beginning to glaze over because there are just so many rankings, ratings and survey guides available, and there doesn't seem much difference from year to year or publication to publication. The factual portions of these rankings are based on the same information that schools provide to the Department of Education, but these facts never speak to a family's desires and hopes. Those who create rankings never ask us for information that would help people make the right college match.

What we need is a consumer guide to rankings. There are publications that take the beauty contest out of the picture, encouraging schools not to seek students as trophies or students to seek institutions as trophies.

In Colleges That Change Lives, Loren Pope, a former education editor of The New York Times, writes about institutions that he believes transform students. Pope's successor at The New York Times, Edward Fiske, publishes The Fiske Guide to Colleges, which also provides useful information on about 300 colleges and universities.

Then there are non-commercial sources such as U-Can (www.ucan-network.org) and the Department of Education's College Navigator (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator). These publications and websites aim to encourage a good match between student and institution.

It may seem odd to publish my views in Times Higher Education since it publishes the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. My hope is that the Times Higher Education-QS rankings will stand on their own, and, as with the US-only rankings, we can explain them to the few people who still care and work to make our institutions better and not just more highly ranked.

But I know my colleagues and I will be anxious again next summer when the US News rankings reappear. College and university presidents will pay attention to them, not because of what can be gained for their institutions, but because of what can be lost.

Rankings can hinder families trying to make good decisions by convincing them that only trophy colleges are good enough for their children, resulting in anxiety and sometimes disappointment. Every August, we try to minimise the damage. This time around, it does not seem as exhausting as in past years. But would someone remind me who benefits from this annual exercise?

The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings supplement will appear next week.

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