The topic of college rankings has come up on this blog from time to time, usually with some cautionary words from me about understanding rankings for what they do and don’t mean, thinking critically about how rankings are defined and compiled, and so on.
This week the topic of rankings, and specifically of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, is much in the news. The unfortunate occasion is the revelation that an official at Claremont-McKenna College, a fine institution with outstanding students and a strong reputation, misrepresented its students’ SAT scores in pursuit of higher rankings. (They are not alone; similar approaches to “gaming the rankings” have been reported at other colleges.) Several interesting and insightful commentaries on this situation have been published this week; some I’d recommend to you are here, here, and here.
Sweet Briar, like many of the liberal arts colleges in the Annapolis Group, does not participate in the “reputational survey” aspect of the USN&WR rankings — that is, we do not respond to surveys asking us to give our subjective impression of the quality of other schools. Nor do we promote our own U. S. News rankings in admissions materials. We take this position because we do not believe the reputational survey collects meaningful information and that, because of its weight in the methodology, the overall scoring is significantly flawed. Besides, it is inherently unreasonable to think that all the complex factors that make an educational institution effective can be distilled into one single number on which meaningful comparisons can be based.
What thoughtful people in higher education are talking about this week is a larger issue. They are talking about the skewed system of incentives created by the dominance of rankings such as those published by USN&WR. Here’s an example, from a piece by William D. Adams, president of Colby College:
“Perhaps the time has come for us to admit that we are trying to work within a system that encourages us to skew our work toward improving our performance in the rankings rather than focusing on our core educational missions; deploy teams of people to squeeze each ranking data point until it screams, rather than take all possible measures to find students who seek – and will truly benefit from – the distinctive experience we each have to offer.”
I couldn’t have said that better myself. When I was a candidate for the presidency at Sweet Briar, I remember being asked by a faculty member what I would do to improve Sweet Briar’s standing in the U.S. News rankings. And I remember my reply: that I would do very little for that reason, as I believe it is a serious mistake to chase rankings. The thing to chase, in my view, is excellence. If institutions keep focus on educational excellence for students, the world — and any truly useful rankings systems — will recognize it. If we chase rankings, we may succeed in moving an institution from, say, #84 to #81, or from #25 to #20, or from #7 to #3. But there is no reason to believe that we would be better serving students because of it.
At Sweet Briar, we spend much more time thinking about how we assess and improve student learning than about where we stand in the eyes of U. S. News. And that’s as it should be.