Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Who's On First? College Ranking Systems

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities otherwise known as NAICU -- is that pronounced "Nay-koo" or "Nay-soo?" -- has rolled out a sample template that, when filled in with real data from real colleges, will allow potential students and their parents to compare institutions: the curious will be able to click on various parts of the webpages, and go to data bases kept by the colleges themselves that give more detailed information. You can read about this innovation in making the process of choosing a college even more time-consuming and hideous than it already is at the Chronicle of Higher Education: click here. This is part of a growing effort, I think, to topple the supremacy of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and sell colleges in ways that they wish to be sold rather than forcing them to meet criteria set by (yecch!) journalists.

You know, I think the way to really make the Tenured Radical 2.0 blog fly to a general audience would be to develop the Radical Ranking System for Colleges and Universities. Because I just have to ask -- why do we need to rank colleges and universities in the first place? Who profits from this? And will it be so much better for each college or university to hire more institutional research people to assemble the data for NAICU than it is to have the little research bunnies over at US News and World Report tabulate the questionnaires? And under what circumstances might such a ranking really need to include, as the Chronicle so gracefully put it, "results from specific assessments of student-learning outcomes?" NAICU, by the way, is resisting this, because they claim that you can't put all institutions in the same box, something I think pretty much everyone thinks is one major flaw of the current ranking system. Public universities apparently feel otherwise, since they have been bullied by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings into providing some kind of assessment of learning outcomes, because of ominous news that the Bush Administration was discussing a No Child Left Behind Act for public higher education as well.

Sometimes I almost think we should be grateful the administration is kept so busy screwing up the Middle East for decades to come. Imagine what they might accomplish if they had time on their hands.

I would like to make one point here which should illuminate the philosophical source of my sarcasm on the question of assessment and the question of ranking. It is not so much that it is dumb to put all colleges and universities in the same box: it's dumb to put all students in the same box. What is wrong with "specific assessments of student-learning outcomes" is a) the point of education at all levels is for students to learn to assess themselves and figure out what they need to know; and b) the phrase "student-learning outcomes" is utterly meaningless.

Ranking and assessment assume that a college or a university is good when it can promise, in four years, to turn out a student who is a certain kind of well-functioning product. But students are not products: they are people who are evolving into citizens, workers and neighbors. Thus, students and their parents should not be comparing schools to each other. The correct comparison is to match up what the school offers with what the student herself thinks she wants. In less enlightened families, that will mean matching the school to what the parents want or will pay for. The NAICU plan will probably come closer to meeting this ideal, although personally I think people should just visit and talk to the students that are already on campus. They know, better than anyone, what is or is not happening in the classroom and the dorms.

At Zenith, folks are constantly having fits about some feature of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and I am sure there will be some movement in the fall to join these other SLACs in NAICU and secede from them. It is said that the Board of Trustees loves them and keeps pushing for a higher ranking, but I have hung out with a lot of trustees, and none of them has ever said such a thing to me, although perhaps this is out of fear that I will detonate myself if they do. I dunno. But I would say the chief detraction of the damn rankings is that every time there is some kind of policy change regarding class size or advising or whatnot, the assumption on the part of many of my colleagues is not that it is intended to help us do our job better, but that it is intended to elevate our rank, which usually hovers between 10 and 12. The good news is that nothing we have done has ever moved us more than a point in either direction, which allows everyone to sit in the faculty meeting where the ranking is announced and smirk happily.

There was, I would like to note, great dismay all around one year when Smith somehow managed to dunk on us. "A GIRLS' SCHOOL!! AAAAAAAAH!!!!!" (Full disclosure: I have one family member who attended Smith and liked it very much, thank you.)

A Zenith student once wrote in a comment to this blog that s/he liked the rankings because, growing up in New Jersey, s/he had never heard of Zenith, and s/he discovered it through the national rankings. This caused me to wonder whether this student had grown up in the Pine Barrens or something, since everywhere you turn at Zenith there is a kid from New Jersey, but it was a good point all the same. The rankings advertise one's presence; they make one known in places like New Jersey and Nebraska. But I also had another response, since it reminded me of that thing some people say when they are explaining why they are against abortion: "If my Mom had had an abortion when she was pregnant with me, I might never have been born!" to which my response is always -- "So?" I mean, if I had never known about you, I wouldn't have known to be sad that you weren't here, right? And if you hadn't known about Zenith, you might be playing tennis at Rollins getting a big tan in February, happy as a clam, and probably not saying all day, "I wish I were at Zenith where it's really cold and icy all winter."

You really would not. So I appreciate the inherent Kismet of this student having discovered Zenith, but that's not why I like the rankings: I like them because I don't have to do anything to make them happen, I am not responsible for them, and nothing that the rankings do or don't do affects me in the least, for good or ill. They are one of the things in my life that I put in the win-win column. And given how hard I work on my teaching, scholarship and institutional labor, that is a fabulous thing indeed.

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Update: regular and sane readers need to know that I am temporarily exercising my God-given right to delete comments, since the trolls (or a single troll under several names) are once more spamming me with pointless ones. Those who wish to trade remarks with others who have contempt for me can exercise their freedom of speech here. If my blogger ethic is not clear enough, let me remind everyone that I take down comments that are unrelated to the blog post and/or have no purpose other than to insult me or someone else. As an example, I just took down a comment that insulted Pat Robertson by asserting that he was a friend of the Radical's. I don't know why someone would want to hurt Pat Robertson this way, but I'm not going to stand here and do nothing while they do.

46 comments:

Tim Lacy said...

Thankfully my large, Midwestern, Catholic, graduate school alma mater doesn't seem to obsess over these rankings - at least publicly. This is obviously to its credit. My very large, state flagship, undergraduate alma mater, however, does seem to value the rankings. They're all about prestige, research money, and image. I publicly like my graduate alma mater better, but my heart grieves for my undergraduate school. - TL

PS - How's that for a vague post with a message?

Maiden said...

Dear Tenured Rad--
This is off-topic--forgive me!--but I'd like to invite you to participate in the Bloggers on Torture Project:

http://nomoretorture.blogspot.com/2007/06/bloggers-on-torture-open-invitation.html

Thanks! All the best, Maiden

SixtiesLiberal said...

It would be nice to visit and talk with the students at all the colleges one might consider, but practically one can only do that with 10-20 at most. The only way one can narrow choices is to read about them. Americans are a competitive lot, one of our strenghts, I think. However, that means that most of us are looking for edges for us or our kids. Hence the annual quest to find the "best" college a kid can get into, consistent with his or her performance in high school. Almost 35 years after I graduated from an Ivy, people are still impressed (unjustifiably) by where I went to college.

Very few 18 year olds know what they want to do for the next 4 years, much less for the rest of their lives, so custom fitting them to a college is difficult. The best you get is engineering vs. fine arts vs. science/medicine vs. everything else (liberal arts).

The rankings, whatever the source, are not the be all and end all, but we read them and put them into the amorphous organic computers between our ears. They have some value.

Holly said...

I'm actually working in the rankings system into my thesis. Essentially how schools by competing in the rankings are (unintentionally) making it increasingly more difficult for low-income students to make way through graduation. But mainly my argument is that the rankings were created so that Harvard would always be #1. Occasionally, Yale or Princeton will out-Harvard Harvard, but the rankings were designed so that Harvard would always be near the top. So in essence, to rise in the rankings means to better emulate Harvard.

Of course, that's where I think the problem comes from with liberal arts schools and especially mid-tier level doctoral schools. They shouldn't have to try to be like Harvard and yet by adhering to the rankings, they must.

Few schools have the resources that Harvard has. Other schools have to make ridiculous compromises just to compete. Keep remedial courses or raise entrance standards? Hire three new professors or try to steal a more established professor from another college?

It's a frustrating trend and it's hurting both students and colleges in the long-run.

Anonymous said...

Um what about part time labor and the fact that US news is some attempt to keep that under control, since at Zenith it is most certainly not. People pay lots of money to be taught by people picked out almost at random from fancy schools, um, is that the MISSION?

GayProf said...

My former Texas institution was obsessed with improving in the "rankings" from the President's office, through the deans' offices, all they way down to individual departments. I was never really sure, though, which or whose "rankings" they were looking at.

On the plus side, the desire to improve rankings resulted in real intellectual benefits (research was given serious attention; the library received new funds; new faculty hires were instituted). On the downside, however, those who controlled the institution loathed the idea that improving in the rankings also meant changing the institution. They did everything they could to impede change, sometimes simply because it was a change. Moreover, "rankings" became an easy catchall to discredit individuals or programs that various factions felt weren't helping prestige (for some, this was "trendy" things like women's studies).

Whatever the case, I also thought it silly that the institution imagined that every other university wasn't also trying to improve their own rankings at the exact same time. Thus, the status quo was basically maintained.

ppb said...

I worked for 6 years at a tiny, financially insecure women's college. I loved the fact that the college just didn't care about rankings. We were too small to ever be noticed (500FTE), so decisions were made based on what was best. I went from there to 2 colleges that were OBSESSED with rankings. One was a crummy school, that manipulated data unethically to get a higher ranking. The other was a really great liberal arts college in CT that cared about only one thing: outranking Zenith.

My current institution is the same way--rankings only matter insomuch as we want to beat out our primary competitor.It all feels very high school footballish to me.

Unfortunately, when I worked grad school admissions, I discovered how much those stupid rankings matter. A so-so GPA from a "good" school can be forgiven. A so-so GPA from a middle of the road school....not so much.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but were you at pride this past weekend? What was it like? How I wish I could have gone!

Anonymous said...

Well, down here at 'Retard U', they made a big noise when we actually managed to make it into the ratings at all. Of course, they had to manipulate the data even to get that to happen...

Bardiac said...

I like that you asked the basic question: why the rankings? What are they really for?

I don't have an answer, but I agree with ppb (and others) that schools try to manipulate the rankings in ways that have nothing to do with helping students get a good education.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

The US News and World Report's predatory ranking system is starting to corrode quality education. In my last year at Zenith (I am from the class of '07), I went through the process of applying to law school, where the Us News and World Distort rankings are having perhaps an even more pronounced effect. In calculating the rankings for law schools, the biggest factor is average incomes of graduates. I don't know if that's true for undergrad, but it accounts for about 80 or 90% of the ranking status for law schools now. A cheap and dirty way to get a rise in rank, then, is to eliminate public interest programs. Producing top-notch lawyers that make no money fighting abuses of corporate power gets a school a lower rank than ones that can pump out scores of mediocre lawyers that make a bundle defending abuses of corporate power. For anyone interested in anything besides the puppy-stomping career, the ranking system is completely irrelevent.

Lauren said...

If that law school theory is true, then why are Yale and Stanford, schools with very generous loan forgiveness policies for those going into public service, ranked so high?

Anonymous said...

ummmm, because Yale and Stamford also produce some of the highest paid lawyers in the country?

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http://khozim.blogspot.com/ said...

University life can be one of life's richest experiences. While thinking which university or school has the most beautiful campus or the highest ranking, however, students should remember that college is both an experience in itself and a building block of their real life structure. They should choose one that takes this latter role seriously.

flash said...

I don't have an answer, but I agree with ppb (and others) that schools try to manipulate the rankings in ways that have nothing to do with helping students get a good education.


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