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How not to judge a college (Scripps Howard News Service) September 9, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Just in time for the start of school comes a new round of college ratings. Sadly, many students will arrive at their chosen campus to find that relying on these sources of information ranks as a big mistake.

Rating universities has become a profitable way to sell books and magazines. One guide to the 328 “most interesting colleges” will give you such vital information as which schools are “hot and trendy” and which are “hidden treasures.” Several guidebooks compete to name the biggest “party schools.” To keep it interesting, these things supposedly change from year to year, so you’d better buy the latest edition. Suddenly Yale might be better than Princeton, at least for a year.

But the granddaddy of them all is the fall U.S. News and World Report rankings, which purport to tell us which universities stand at the top of the academic class. These are the most dangerous rankings of all since they purport to provide objective and measurable comparisons upon which parents and prospective students have come to rely.

But don’t be fooled. Academic quality is not measurable in the way that Consumer Reports compares toasters and DVD players. And the U.S. News survey is hardly objective, with 25 percent of their measurements coming from the subjective opinions of college presidents and deans. Perhaps worst of all, several important questions consumers should ask about a college are not even raised.

Take faculty resources, for example, the second largest factor in the U.S. News formula. Would you say that your best classroom experiences come as a result of how much the college spent on faculty salaries and benefits, or what proportion of the professors were full-time? As one savvy parent put it, even though her daughter’s Ivy League college ranks high in faculty resources, her student hasn’t had more than 50 percent of her classes taught by those professors. Instead, graduate teaching assistants cover about half the class sessions. Yet this critical question of access to the faculty is not even considered.

Take a closer look at the largest single factor in the survey, overall reputation. When I served as a college president, I was sent questionnaires asking me to rank 248 different universities all over the nation in various categories of quality. I had never set foot on more than a dozen of the campuses, and as a graduate of two of the schools and president of another, I certainly had biases. I finally quit filling them out altogether, my silent protest to a process that I felt lacked quality and integrity.

Yet the impact of these ratings seems to grow out of all proportion to their quality. Parents and students consistently report that they use such rankings in deciding which colleges to visit. Many universities shamelessly game the system, changing their admissions policies, and entering into bidding wars for both star faculty and students. There are reports that some colleges offer bonuses to administrators who help the college move up in these rankings.

Enough already! Let’s admit that 3,500 colleges and universities in America, each with its own distinctive mission, culture and location, cannot be simply lined up in some kind of rank order. Instead, students should be searching for a college that matches their own education needs and goals. Do they want a smaller or a larger college? Is geography important to them? Will they have access to a high quality faculty that cares about them as students and makes their learning a higher priority than writing more journal articles? Does the college offer international programs and strong majors of potential interest? Are scholarships available?

I am proud of one of my own children who made a difficult college decision this summer. Despite being admitted to one or two colleges that would rank higher in the academic beauty contest, he chose a school that he felt better met his own needs and interests. At first I questioned him, knowing he had choices the rankings say are better. But he gave good answers to why this college was a good fit for him and, in the end, he made the best decision.

Do not choose a college by the numbers. Most of those numbers are about resources and reputation and not actual quality or performance. Base your choice on your own needs and aspirations and which colleges can best meet them. As Albert Einstein reminded us, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

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