Americans, pressed for time and eager for dish, love lists.
Not surprisingly, well-known people or institutions that fare badly on well-known lists tend to be less fond of them.
So, at first blush, you might think sour grapes was on the menu this week as a gathering of college presidents blasted the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings of "America's Best Colleges."
But wait. The Annapolis Group, the association of liberal arts colleges that just pledged to help develop a better alternative to the U.S. News list, includes every one of the colleges in the magazine's Top 10 national liberal arts colleges. That list includes Swarthmore (No. 3) and Haverford (No. 9).
Perhaps something else was driving the agitation at the group's meeting next to Chesapeake Bay.
It's this: U.S. News' clout in determining perceptions of academic value on campus has gotten out of hand. Even allowing for educators' typical reluctance to be judged by outsiders, the college presidents are right to seek to wriggle free.
The rankings are a good idea gone malignant. They've taken on far more meaning than any arbitrary statistical formula should. They have become a prime factor in the college admissions "arms race," which makes parents of smart kids behave like crazy people and often makes those wonderful kids feel like losers at age 17 because they "only" got into Muhlenberg, not Amherst; "only" into Penn State, not Brown.
The nonsense has hit dreadful proportions. It does the cause of genuine education no good and should be curbed.
Of course, colleges and their presidents have been largely complicit in this spiral into nuttiness. In 1983, U.S. News began its rankings, betting correctly that parents of college-age kids would hail any bid to give them understandable, consumer-oriented information about the dark, costly mysteries of higher ed. It's likely that about eight seconds after the first rankings came out, the first college sent out a press release bragging about its rating.
The ratings, tweaked and refined over the years, combine various measures of a college's attributes and appeal, from average class size, to percentage of alumni who give, to percentage of applicants accepted, to percentage of accepted applicants who decide to attend ("yield").
All of the measures are plausible, but no number can really measure the heart of the question, the quality of the learning, scholarship and socialization that happen on a given campus.
To be fair, U.S. News doesn't oversell the validity of its rankings; but it doesn't lament the outsized importance they've come to exercise. After all, that has turned the rankings into a lucrative product line.
The rankings also include, and heavily weight, the results of surveys of college presidents about their perception of the quality of other institutions.
A majority of the 80 college presidents at the Annapolis Group session last week vowed to stop taking part in that very subjective beauty contest, which tends to cement the position of certain prestigious brand-name colleges and to undervalue excellent but lesser-known colleges.
Fact is, the prestige of a college is no guarantee that it will match up with the needs, personality and aspirations of a given student. Lots of students get mediocre educations at "good" schools, while others learn tremendously at lesser-known schools.
What's more disturbing, the rankings have become an end in themselves in higher education. Alumni and trustees fret over their school's rating. Administrators have been known to get bonuses for pushing their schools up the rankings. And this has led to no end of gambits to game the magazine's rating system, sometimes with damaging results for families.
One way to increase yield, the percentage of a college's acceptances who actually matriculate, is to boost the percentage of students you accept "early decision." This trend to binding decisions in the fall of senior year has stampeded many students into the wrong school, and undercut many families' bargaining position on aid.
To increase "selectivity" (i.e. lowering the percentage of applicants accepted) some colleges indulge in P.R. campaigns to persuade students with little chance of being accepted to go through the trouble and expense of applying.
Average SAT scores of entering classes remain a factor in the formula. This can't help the acceptance chances of quirky, creative kids whose talents may not be well-measured by standardized tests.
Finally, the whole prestige chase, fueled by U.S. News, enables elite colleges to raise tuitions at rates outstripping inflation and seemingly immune to market pressure.
So, OK, the U.S. News rankings have gotten out of control. But the enterprise became a cottage industry for a reason. Parents and students thirst for an accessible, organized, thorough source of comparative information on colleges.
Actually, a host of fat books you can find at your local bookstore do a pretty good, qualitative job of that. But at-a-glance charts chock-full of statistics do have value. Recognizing that, the Annapolis Group presidents have agreed to work with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges to develop a better alternative to U.S. News.
The burden is on them to produce. Pick up those No. 2 pencils and get to work, folks.
(c) 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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