Faculty and students question rankings

by Lauren Budd | 2/5/15 9:58pm

Each year, The Dartmouth publishes a story reporting the College’s ranking compared to other higher education institutions as determined by the U.S. News & World Report.

These rankings, however, are not without their critics. In 2013, The Atlantic published an op-ed entitled, “Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings,” in which popular criticisms of the ranking system were listed.

U.S. News & World Report constantly changes the metrics they use to compare Colleges, so short-term changes in rankings are generally not meaningful or helpful, economics professor Bruce Sacerdote said.

“A few years ago, Slate ran a piece showing that U.S. News would simply rotate the weights on different items in order to generate different rankings each year to create some excitement,” Sacerdote said. Differences in the rankings from year to year sell more stories, he added, which is ultimately the primary goal of U.S. News & World Report.

According to The Atlantic op-ed, the rankings create incentives for universities to manipulate the system, spending money to boost important ranking factors, increasing the size of their applicant pool to improve their acceptance rates and sometimes even misreporting their number to U.S. News.

“As far as I know we are not deeply in the rankings manipulation business,” Sacerdote said. “We are in the teaching and research business.”

As for attempts to boost rankings, Northwestern University political science professor and author of the book “The Thinking Student’s Guide to College” Andrew Roberts said he thinks that all institutions try to boost their rankings, pointing specifically to generating massive applicant numbers to help appear more selective.

“I’ve heard that many places try to gin up applications so that they can say that they only admitted a small percentage of applicants,” Roberts said. “That doesn’t change the education they provide, but it does make applicants more nervous.”

Recruiting large applicant pools has little to do with boosting rankings and more to do with improving the quality of the College as a whole, director of media relations Diana Lawrence said.

“Our goal is not to attract more applicants for the sake of having more applicants, but to engage the students who are eager and prepared to take full advantage of the Dartmouth experience,” Lawrence said. “Every year the admissions office works to enhance our recruitment efforts in order to continue to attract and enroll the most talented and diverse student population we can.”

Lawrence denied any use of strategic tactics to manipulate the College’s rankings.

Samuel Colello ’18 said that though Dartmouth’s exact ranking did not affect his decision to apply, it served as a positive reinforcement for attending.

Caroline Braun ’18 said that though prestige was a factor, she chose the College over similarly ranked schools because of its resources rather than its rank.

Ronald Ehrenberg, economics professor at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, echoed Roberts’ thoughts regarding rankings.

“Everybody’s trying to manipulate their rankings. It’s not particularly unique to any institution,” said Ehrenberg.

Ehrenberg pointed to admission strategies like recruiting large numbers of applicants and enrolling students with lower test scores in the second semester or as transfer students so that their test scores do not affect rank.

Higher rankings are beneficial to colleges all around, Ehrenberg said, noting that higher rankings attract more applicants, which makes the college look more selective. Allows the college to gain more students with the highest test scores and even allows the college to spend less financial aid money on students. Conversely, when rankings drop, colleges attract fewer applicants, enroll applicants with lower test scores, and end up having to offer more money in financial aid to draw students to enroll, he said.

“The analogy that I like to use is that selective private universities are like Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster only has one goal in life, and that’s to find as many cookies as he can and stuff them in his mouth. Selective universities are very similar: we only have one goal in life and that’s to be the very best we can on every dimension in our activities,” Ehrenberg said. “We want the best students, the best faculty, the best facilities, the best student services, you name it. That’s what makes a selective university selective.”

Ehrenberg said that though all institutions, including Dartmouth, are actively working to improve their rankings and be the most selective they can be, their academic mission is not suffering as a result. He also noted that being a liberal arts school does not detract from public perception of the College or any institution that identifies as such, as applicants as a whole are aware of the differences between schools.

Ehrenberg also said that small universities such as Dartmouth and Princeton University, or “liberal arts universities,” have a relative advantage in the rankings game — their small size and lack of technical colleges allow their average standardized test scores to be higher, another key component of US News and World Report rankings.

“The goal of being the best you can on every level is what makes American higher education so extraordinarily good,” Ehrenberg said.

Sacerdote suggested a more accurate way to rank schools would be to compare whether incoming students choose a particular institution over another in a “head-to-head” match.

“This yields a stable, sensible set of rankings and Dartmouth does extremely well using a sensible methodology like this,” Sacerdote said.