The annual U.S. News Best Colleges guide, while universally scorned, is the still the driver of many a college search and many a college admissions marketing and “continuous Improvement” strategy in higher education.
It’s easy to understand why.
The people who assemble the U.S. News Best Colleges guide have no stake in where a college ranks and, in their views, have tried to be statistically honest about what makes a “highly ranked” college.
If there was no U.S. News Best Colleges guide some other publisher, maybe an academic authority, would invent something like one. It would have school listed together. It would also have a handy reference guide on each college. And, it would have a very handy online component. The U.S. News Best Colleges guide does. I know. I’ve bought one every year since 2009, and kept every copy, the 2015 being the most worn, to the point where I needed a second one. I’ve also subscribed to the online edition. No reason not to. It has valuable information that the published collected from the colleges.
The problem with the U.S. News Best Colleges guide is not the quality of the data, or how they gathered it.
It’s how they present it to the consumers: college-bound students and their families.
Buy into the U.S. News methodology and you will believe that:
Those who lead colleges are best equipped to judge how “good” they are.
The results of the publisher’s surveys of college presidents, deans and provosts as well as 2,400 public and private school counselors (national universities and liberal arts colleges only) carry as much weight (22.5 percent) as the graduation and retention rates for the school.
Essentially any college can “game” quality, though effective marketing, to get the “reputation” that they hope for. I’m left to wonder how these colleges would fare in a ranking of their acclimation, financial aid, academic advising and residence life practices in a survey of college freshmen who are nearing the end of that first year, as well as their parents. And so..
Customer service ratings are not the majority of the factors by which schools are “ranked.”
The U.S. News Best Colleges guide assigns only 35 percent of its weights to factors that could be considered customer service: Graduation rates (6-Year) and Retention rates (Average from freshmen classes that entered between 2010 and 2013): Graduation Rate Performance (Difference between the school’s Actual Six-Year Graduation Rate for students who entered in 2008 and a proprietary Predicted Six-Year Graduation Rate for that class; and the Average Alumni Giving Rate for the years 2012-13 and 2013-14.
What are the best measures of performance? Success and satisfaction. A school that successfully retains a freshman class, graduates as much of that class on time, and has alumni willing to give time and money to help future generations is a “good” school. This should be 65 percent of a college’s ranking, not 35. So many parents who have children who cannot gain admission to the Ivy League and similar schools are actively looking for such colleges, even if their child did not have high standardized test scores or a 4-point-plus GPA.
The Ivy League schools and the like would still score high. They admit excellent students who usually stay and graduate on time. They also have exceptionally loyal alumni. But the hunch here is that a school such as Notre Dame would vault from 18th into the top ten among National Research Universities while Southern Cal would leap from 23rd to 13th, just behind Northwestern. No religiously-affliated university is a member of the research-driven Association of American Universities (AAU). A senior administrator at an AAU school is not going to vote to rank Notre Dame ahead of its best-performing members for faculty quality or resources. Nor would the same people ever consider Southern Cal as “serious” a research university as Duke, Northwestern, Rice or Vanderbilt.
Scores and selectivity matter
The U.S. News Best Colleges guide assigns only 12.5 percent of a ranking to acceptance rates and test scores. That makes them less important than the customer service factors as well as the faculty resources the school has. That’s fair judgement on the publisher’s part. A school should be ranked higher if it attracts students who score high on the ACT or the SAT.They had to be intellectually curious about something. There’s no issue about ranking a school higher because it has more of those students. That’s a reflection on its reputation, just like the surveys are. But that’s not all a college “is.”
The majority of the students who would score in the 80th percentile or higher on these tests–that’s 26 (out of 36) on the ACT and an 1230 (out of 1600) on the SAT–can be considered to be “smart.” All but the most selective flagship state universities are loaded with such students as well as many fine regional schools and liberal arts colleges. These students are the school’s “bread and butter.” They don’t receive the benefits of being in an honors program from the day that they walk into school. But most are no less happy to be where they are. And if they do exceptionally well in school they come from further behind than the highly-recruited honors students.
If a ranking helps schools that attract high-achieving students into their freshman class, it should also help schools that attract freshmen who, while fine students, enter college with less-spectacular numbers. It is more important to rate colleges on their outputs–continuing and graduating students as well as satisfied alumni–than to rate them based on the numbers that they turned away.
Value doesn’t matter
Too many families who are starting to consider college must consider costs. This is especially true for those families of college-bound students who know that the Ivy League schools, as well as others that cannot meet full need, are not a realistic option. In no way are costs a factor in ranking similar schools against each other. If they were, the well-endowed schools would still rate high, as they do based on Financial Resources, which represents 10 percent of a ranking in the U.S. News Best Colleges guide. But other schools that have “friendlier” scholarship policies would rate higher, as would schools that have lower sticker prices versus their peers.
There is a need for a true “consumer guide” that does a better job at helping families choose a college. It must place customer satisfaction front and center while trying to push away such vague terms as “academic quality,” that pertain to a faculty or a student body. The Alumni Factor, which gathers a wealth of information from alumni at over 1,500 schools, comes the closest.
But the U.S. News Best Colleges guide will not be that source. Unless it can sell many more advertising pages to the colleges, or get a healthy cash injection from an impartial, but interested, educational organization. I turned 55 in July, so I doubt that either will happen in my lifetime.
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