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U.S. News Rankings-A Necessary Evil?

November 18, 1999

Nick Marinello

In its March 29 issue, U.S. News and World Report released its rankings of the nation's best graduate programs. With Tulane's business and law schools included in the top echelon of their respective categories, it's the kind of publicity that youd think university administrators would be glad to embrace. And they do-but not without reservations.

"I consider these rankings a necessary evil," says Tulane President Scott Cowen, who questions the degree of importance invested in the rankings. "The surveys are not a science or an art," he says. "They don't focus on what students learn at an institution."

While it has joined homecoming and commencement as among the academic year's most anticipated events, the publishing of U.S. News rankings, which also are issued each fall to evaluate undergraduate programs, inspires a resigned-if not uneasy-acceptance on college campuses.

"We have to remember that they were created to sell magazines," says Cowen. "Lists are very popular and sell a lot of copy. We can't avoid them because our prospective students and their parents read them."

"Our society loves lists," agrees Ed Sherman, dean of Tulane Law School. "We tend to believe they are gospel when they are far from it."

Although he has seen his school rise in the U.S. News rankings for the last three years to reach a very respectable No. 40 position (out of 181 of the nation's accredited law schools), Sherman has harsh words for the survey.

"They are a pernicious development," he says. "To say that a school ranked at No. 25 is necessarily any better than one ranked at No. 40 is absurd."

Sherman, in fact, joined the deans of 169 other law schools in signing a letter written to discourage law school applicants from using the rankings to make their decisions. "Students shouldn't rely on such lists," said Sherman. "They should review our catalog, research our programs, talk to people knowledgeable about the school."

Still, positive movement in the rankings is an almost irresistible public relations opportunity. As the March 29 issue of U.S. News was hitting the streets, the law school clinics were sending out a press release announcing that their environmental law program had moved up to No. 5 in the country.

Which is exactly what the university should be doing with the rankings, says Dick Whiteside, vice president for enrollment management and institutional research, who sees the rankings as a valuable marketing tool.

"That U.S. News ranked Tulane's undergraduate program No. 36 in the magazine's Aug. 31, 1998, issue is, quite simply, good news. Prospective parents and students use these rankings to inform their judgment," says Whiteside. "From that perspective, these rankings are important. We should do everything we can to maintain a good position. Whether or not prospective applicants understand all the (often-arcane) criteria used in developing lists is largely immaterial," says Whiteside. "Most institutions will agree that you want to keep your institution at the forefront. It may be simply a visceral reaction from the public: Jeez, I dont know what you do, but, by God, its good!"

Name recognition derived from such rankings is valuable, agrees Cowen. "I believe that the important thing is that we get mentioned within the top group," he says. "Where we are ranked in that group in any particular year doesn't make a difference."

James McFarland, the business school dean who has seen his school roller-coaster in the last three years from No. 44 up to No. 28 and then back down to No. 44 this year, sees the rankings as a volatile environment where positive or negative movement does not necessarily reflect the academic quality of a school.

Though his school dropped 12 places in the current rankings, McFarland says, "there's no way we are any worse of a school. In fact we are much better. Still, he admits he watches the rankings. We dont have any a choice but to play the game or get killed in terms of public perception."

Like Cowen, McFarland believes it's critical to stay within the top 50, but covets a position in the top 25. "When you break into the top 50, you are acceptable," he says. "Then you have to make a run at the top 25, otherwise you can't get the student demand that you need to sustain that incredible run."

Joseph Pisano, associate dean of Tulane School of Medicine admissions, however, has little regard for the rankings. In fact, Pisano says he no longer returns the questionnaires used by U.S. News to compile data for its survey. By not responding, Pisano, in effect, takes the medical school out of the horse race.

"U.S. News doesn't know what it's doing," he says, despite the fact that the magazine ranked the school as the No. 6 comprehensive medical school in the country only five years ago. "I still don't know what comprehensive meant," he says. "I don't know how they generated the data. They didn't contact me."

Within two years, Tulane medical school dropped out of the rankings, Pisano says, because it no longer neatly fit into either of two newly created categories.

"[U.S. News] changed the end point by dividing schools into two groups," he says. "One reflects research dollars and the other the number of primary-care physicians produced." Neither category is an adequate measure of a medical education, says Pisano, who is particularly perturbed that the magazine isn't truly measuring how many graduates are going into primary care.

He points out that data used by U.S. News pertains to students entering primary care fields of family practice, internal medicine and pediatrics. Many specialists begin their careers by doing an internal medicine residency, he says.

"If you really want to track how many primary care physicians a school is turning out, you must see which graduates are still primary care physicians five or six years into their careers. While the no-show in the rankings has had a deleterious effect on admissions, it is not an overwhelming one," says Pisano.

The year after Tulane medical school was ranked No. 6, admission applications doubled, from 6,000 to 12,000. The school currently receives about 8,500 applications to fill the 150 available seats. That's a large enough pool, says Pisano, who maintains that our student body is the best in the country.

Like Sherman, Cowen scoffs at the importance given to numerical values of a rank. "The score that separates the No. 45 school from the No. 30 school is what, three points out of 100 points? It is so insignificant." Beyond that, Cowen says input measures such as high school class rank and standardized test scores (SAT, GMAT, LSAT) that are often used in such rankings have no bearing on how well an institution is teaching its students.

"If you really want to understand how well an institution is doing you want to focus on outcome measures-how is a student better off because he or she has come to a particular school. The ideal outcome measure, says Cowen, would be to trace what happens to a graduate during the course of his or her career. Though it would be a complex and perhaps expensive undertaking, it is the kind of longitudinal research Id like to see done here in time," he says.

For the moment, Cowen says he encourages parents of prospective students to look beyond the current rankings and consider where a school will be in five or 10 years. "I say, look at the progression of the institution. Look how its reputation has changed, and whether the school is headed in the direction you want."

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