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Jeff Lehman on Rankings

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a great article on the way that U.S. News' college rankings affects the way institutions of higher education allocate resources, often at the cost of educational quality.

Colleges are reluctant to admit that they "game" the figures, but most of the methods are so well known that many officials assume that most of their competitors engage in them...

At Baylor, as at many other institutions, the admissions office plays a crucial role in improving the rankings because 15 percent of U.S. News's formula is determined by measures of student selectivity, including scores on standardized entrance exams and the institution's acceptance rate. To improve those numbers, Baylor increased its total scholarship offerings from $38-million in 2001 to $86-million in 2005 and created an honors college. Since 2002 applications have increased (from 7,431 to 26,421) and the acceptance rate has dropped from 81 percent to 42 percent. Over the last five years, the average SAT score of enrolling first-year students has risen 30 points, to 1219.

So let's see, rankings tell us nothing about educational quality while encouraging colleges to spend money on frivolous programs like merit-based aid. Where have we heard this before?

Cornell's own Jeff Lehman is interviewed, and gets the last word in:

The U.S. News rankings clearly are not going to go away, but can they become more evenhanded in measuring university performance?

Jeffrey S. Lehman, former president of Cornell University, has thought a lot about the rankings and suggested changes over a group dinner where he happened to be seated next to Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News. As they are now constituted, he believes the rankings hurt a college because they force it to act in one extreme way or another, and rarely in the best interest of everyone there.

The rankings, for example, weigh average class size, but not average hours of student contact with tenured professors, he says. They measure spending on student aid, but not a university's tuition levels. They take into account the percentage of alumni who make gifts, but not the average size of their gifts.

"I wish that U.S. News would revise its methodology to focus on trade-offs," Mr. Lehman says. "The rankings could help to promote educational quality, rather than distorting institutional behavior, and could provide prospective students with a much more realistic view of the different choices that different universities are making."

It would be a good start. But now how do we convince those among us who cherish the rankings game?

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 21, 2007 (#)

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