Questioning the rankings

September 15, 2000

Nick Marinello

For almost two decades, one of the most anxiously awaited dates on the academic calendar has been the release of the U.S. News and World Report annual guide to American colleges and universities. Begun in 1983, the rankings have become the most widely read assessment of quality in higher education.

Many university and college administrators, including those at Tulane (see Inside Tulane, April 15, 1999), however, view the rankings with a measure of skepticism, and question if they really do measure true academic quality.

While this year's survey, released in the magazine's Sept. 4 issue, keeps Tulane among the prestigious top-50 schools in the country and one of just a handful in the South, it also has the university falling one slot, from No. 44 to No. 45-despite the fact that Tulane's overall score increased from the prior year.

For Tulane President Scott Cowen, the rankings present themselves as a kind of double-edged sword that he is not inclined to either wield or ignore.

"I don't put a lot of stock in the U.S. News rankings," says Cowen. "However, I know they are something that prospective students and their parents look at in order to make an initial assessment of the quality of an institution."

While he's happy to have Tulane remaining in the top 50, Cowen sees the numerical ranking as a tad specious.

"The margin of difference among schools ranked in the 40s and 30s is relatively small, making it difficult, if not impossible, to conclude that there are any discernible quality differences," he says. As far as slipping in the rankings in the last two years, Cowen cites changes in methodology and "certain variables that you cannot alter in a short period of time."

Cowen is not alone in questioning U.S. News' methods in conducting the survey. A report commissioned in 1997 by the U.S. News to assess its own methodologies pointed to a "lack of any defensible empirical or theoretical basis" to the survey.

The report, which was produced by the National Opinion Research Council, was obtained by The Washington Monthly and just released in that publication's September issue as part of an article on the rankings ("Playing with Numbers"). Another NORC critique of the rankings reflects Cowen's own concern about data that is misleading when analyzed over only short periods of time.

The group was critical of the way U.S. News interpreted graduation rates, yield and alumni giving, suggesting that the ranking should be tabulated "to smooth out short-term fluctuations, random errors in reporting or other factors that might cause unbelievably large movements in rankings for particular institutions."

The writer of The Washington Monthly article, Nicholas Thompson, asserts that although the rankings "help high school students without college counselors figure out ballpark quality estimates of the schools they're considering," they don't do enough to measure the academic bottom line: how much students are learning.

"U.S. News rankings," writes Thompson, "don't measure whether students spend their evenings talking about Jonathan Swift or playing beer pong; and they don't measure whether students are just there to get through."

Supporting that assertion is the NORC recommendation that U.S. News broaden its scope by measuring "student experience and curriculum." Currently, the U.S. News survey is compiled using data drawn from an institution's academic reputation, graduation and retention rates, class size, faculty resources, percentage of full-time faculty, freshman ACT/SAT scores, freshman high school rankings, selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving.

"Rankings are there to sell magazines," says Cowen. "They are not there to accurately measure student learning, engagement and satisfaction." Cowen said that Tulane is participating in a pilot program conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts to assess "how much seniors learn and are engaged by an institution."

Beyond that, Cowen says that while he does not want to ignore external rankings, he is relying on an internal compass to guide him. That compass, he says, is Tulane's strategic plan.

"What is important is that we have a strategic plan that specifies what we want to accomplish in the next five years," he says. "How we perform in comparison to these goals is what is important to me. I am not going to lead an institution simply to rise in the rankings." However, he says, faithfully following the strategic plan, making smart decisions and working hard will "over time be reflected in the rankings."

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