Thursday, June 21, 2007

College rankings

In a movement that's been gaining support for a number of years, the members of the Annapolis Group have decided to try and stick it to the U.S. News & World Report college rankings by boycotting the process entirely. Well, they've only recommended boycotting it to the respective institutions-- their statement is here. They claim not to like the reputation part of the rankings in which college presidents are asked their opinion of the other schools in the survey, and this metric accounts for 25% of the final tally.

Personally, I think they don't like the rankings as a whole, and that's just a margin by which they can find a leg to stand on. College rankings are a zero-sum game. You go up when others go down, and your overall score doesn't matter one bit-- it only matters as compared to everyone else's. As such, self-interested college presidents should form opinions of these surveys based on how their institutions rank relative to where they feel they should rank. Those presidents most in favor of change should be those that feel most underrated-- and those at the summit of the list should never be against the rankings. It's interesting that the three presidents quoted in the article as being against the rankings-- or at least on record as against the reputation survey-- are from colleges ranked 41st, 45th and 65th, or those right in the range of feeling that a) they are underrated, and thus b) would likely stand to gain the most from an elimination of the U.S. News and World Report process.

(I could be mistaken, but I believe Reed College boycotted these rankings for a while in the late 90s and maybe into this century. Again, I could be wrong, but I think they were roughly around 10th when they decided to do this, and now I notice they are back in the rankings at around 50th, which is an interesting story in its own right.)

College presidents, as well as students, know exactly how important these rankings are. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the colleges nearer the top of the Liberal Arts list, and also served in student government there during the search and selection process of a new president. There was no larger factor in the decision than the candidates impact on the college's standing in the rankings. It wasn't something we were trying to conceal-- the student newspaper had the exact same debate we were having. Rankings are a massive recruiting tool, and colleges want the best students they can get.

I personally don't see the U.S. News and World Report rankings fading into the background any time soon. The market needs third party rankings, and all said they do a solid job-- independent of the rankings, there's a lot of data in one concise place. One solution put forth by the Annapolis Group is that there exist competing rankings that do a better job; they name National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges, among others. Of course, there's no reason to believe that these groups' rankings can insulate themselves from the discontent that U.S. News and World Report has fielded-- and once those new rankings come out, I can assure you that those nearer the bottom will be ready to cry foul.

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