Downgrading College Ranking Publications

by PATRICK MATTIMORE | 9/22/04 5:00am

E.M. Crawford's letter "Why, Oh Why" (The Dartmouth, August 24) highlights one of the many problems with magazine rankings of colleges: the widespread misperception that numerically ranking colleges actually tells you something that is objectively valid regarding those universities.

Nevertheless, the college admissions panic is on for U.S. parents and their high school seniors. The panic is fueled by the unholy alliance of parents and students, colleges and the rankings industry. National magazines have timed their release of college ranking issues to coincide with Americans' paranoia.

Since US News & World Report first began ranking colleges in the 1980s, other magazines and books have followed suit. Time and Newsweek now rank schools. Publishers publish guidebooks such as the Princeton Review and Fiske College guides, which purportedly identify the best colleges.

Universities and colleges have responded. Schools advertise their rankings on Web sites and in promotional mailings. Furthermore, colleges artificially manipulate data in order to achieve high rankings.

For example, all the rankings purveyors use college selectivity as a measure of academic excellence to the lower the acceptance rates at schools, the better the presumed quality of that school. Hence, many universities encourage unqualified or borderline students to apply in order to increase rejection rates.

Another supposed measure of college excellence is "yield" the percentage of students that are selected to attend the college that actually end up enrolling. The assumption is that the higher the school's yield, the better the school. Schools have several ways of manipulating their yield rates.

First, they can accept a large number of applicants from certain classes of students that they feel fairly certain will attend. Traditionally, one such group has been legacies: sons and daughters of alumni.

A second way to doctor yield is to offer a binding early admissions process. Students sign an agreement in advance stating that if the university accepts them, they will attend.

Both selectivity and yield are criteria admissions directors now consider in making admissions decisions that have, to some extent, been propelled by outside artificial market forces. Neither criterion can truly determine anything about the quality of education a student will receive at the school. Moreover, both criteria may end up unfairly biasing the admissions process for some students and against others.

The issue though, is not only whether these are truly measures of a school's worth, but whether school policies should be driven by magazine rankings.

The magazines, of course, have a benign explanation as to why they rank schools: To help students make one of the most important decisions of their lives.

A cynic might suggest a more compelling interpretation. The college issues are frequently the magazines' best-selling issue of the year. That fact has allowed magazine publishers to become driving forces in the college admissions industry. Although no collusion scandal has yet arisen in the rankings industry, it is not hard to imagine the day when a Yale University admissions counselor, for example, offers a college rankings magazine official a bribe to get a higher ranking than, for example, Dartmouth. The stakes have become too high for colleges to ignore their rankings and the temptations are too great for data gatherers to accept the kinds of payoffs typical of many industries.

The power of rankings and their sway on the public imagination has not been lost on magazine editors. Look sometime at the number of issues devoted annually to highlighting the top 100 businesses or restaurants, for example.

But ultimately, what is the harm to students and their families? I would suggest the harm results from something our businesses are very good at: Creating demand and fueling small flames into conflagrations. Our emphases on biggest, best and first are often quantitative measures rather than qualitative ones. The marketing of education has made the packaging, not the product, better.

Parents and high school students often become enamored with the college admissions search process. They ask the wrong questions. In fact, they really don't task questions at all, because they have already bought the "best" lists. Students become most concerned about being picked by colleges, not selecting them. Top students often go to universities, not because of any match with their talents or interests, but because the school was given the best rating by a magazine somewhere.

College rankings by magazines are not likely to go away. In fact, their prevalence is increasing. The Atlantic Monthly just added its authoritative voice to the field with its first annual U.S. college survey edition last November. Colleges and universities cannot afford to ignore the rankings because the surveys have too strong a foothold in academia.

So the solution is left to the consumer, in this case, parents and students. Although it would be impractical to suggest that those groups ignore the rankings, it is possible to use the rankings as a last resort. That is, parents and students should do their college research independently of magazine surveys. Once they are comfortable with two or three possible choices only then should they resort to magazines.