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U.S. News College Rankings Debated

August 20, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The only thing more competitive than getting into college is the ranking system many schools rely on to market themselves. One major guide, published annually by U.S. News and World Report, hits newsstands today, bringing a fresh wave of controversy along with it.

This year, more than 60 college presidents from mostly liberal arts institutions have declared the rankings “misleading” and decided not to participate in judging each other by reputation.

The rankings, which gauge everything from alumni giving to acceptance rates, are largely based on information supplied by the colleges themselves. In the section of the survey where presidents are asked to rate each others’ reputation, participation this year dropped from 58 percent to 51 percent. More than 1,400 campuses are surveyed.

Some critics say U.S. News’ criteria does not tell prospective applicants about what sort of education they are likely to get. Educator Kay McClenney in an interview last year.

KAY MCCLENNEY, University of Texas at Austin: When you look at the fine print about how they define what best is, what the criteria are for quality, one of them has to do with the acceptance ratio. And it’s basically, out of all the students that apply, how few do they allow into the college. And I say to myself, when in America did we come to the point of saying that the mark of quality is the proportion of prospective students that you refuse to serve?

GWEN IFILL: Still, some universities have made changes in order to rise in the U.S. News rankings. Western Kentucky University is one of them. Gary Ransdell is the president.

GARY RANSDELL, President, Western Kentucky University: Invest in academic quality. Lower that faculty-student ratio. We’ve hired more faculty and brought it back down. We invest in classroom improvements. We recruit better students. We’re trying to recruit more highly credentialed faculty.

GWEN IFILL: In this year’s U.S. News guide, Princeton held the top spot for the eighth straight year. Harvard was ranked number two, Yale three.

Debate over the rankings

GWEN IFILL: Now, to our own debate on college rankings. Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions director at three universities, is executive director of the Education Conservancy, which is urging colleges to boycott the U.S. News rankings. And Brian Kelly is editor of U.S. News and World Report, which has been publishing the rankings since 1983.

Brian, why rate colleges at all? What's the point?

BRIAN KELLY, U.S. News and World Report: Well, we think it's a pretty useful way to get information to parents and students. And colleges are very powerful and important institutions in this country. An education is a very expensive undertaking. There's a lot of mystery involving colleges.

When we started doing this 25 years ago, there was not really a lot of data available. So we have found this -- we think of it as sort of part of our consumer-journalism franchise. It's a way of both illuminating these somewhat murky institutions and giving the consumers -- the buyers, the parents and students -- useful information about very important choices that they're going to have to make.

GWEN IFILL: Lloyd Thacker, what's wrong with illuminating the murky process of college application and admission?

LLOYD THACKER, The Education Conservancy: Well, the rankings imply a degree of precision and authority that is simply not supported by educational research. Not only do they not measure what's important, but the rank of a college in no way guarantees a quality education or describes the amount of learning that goes on at the particular college. In this way, they've distorted the way education is perceived and pursued in America.

We have, as a result, right now, more applications than ever before, more denials and rejections than ever before, more money being spent by colleges to make rank, and more money being spent by families to get into the most highly ranked college. We have a problem. We have an opportunity to do a better job. And the Education Conservancy is working with a growing number of college presidents to help provide an alternative to the rankings.

Growing number of rejections

GWEN IFILL: Brian Kelly, when you hear about those problems, the growing number of applications and growing number of rejections, how much of it do you think this -- and you're not the only one doing it -- this pervasive idea of ranking institutions is driving that?

BRIAN KELLY: Well, we think we get blamed for a lot of things that aren't our fault. You know, there would be this competitive pressure with or without the rankings. We actually think we help. We think we help parents and students.

GWEN IFILL: How? How?

BRIAN KELLY: By giving them a series of choices. I mean, we're not looking at the top ten schools. We're looking at 1,400 schools. There's tons of good schools out there. We're slicing and dicing it for people. We look at liberal arts schools; we look at small regional schools; we look at the big national universities.

If I'm a student coming to the U.S. News guide, I can look at my profile, put it down. What are my SAT scores? What are my ambitions? Do I want a big school, a small school? We have it all in ways that are easily understandable.

It's certainly not the be-all and end-all. It's a first step. It's a first step in the process. And I take Lloyd's point: It is not perfect. There's lots of information we would like to be able to provide people that's not available, but it is a tool, and that's really how we view it.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that, Mr. Thacker, that people use it as a tool or they use it as the be-all and end-all? If someone says, "Yale is number one," they're not going to pay attention to Central Mississippi State?

LLOYD THACKER: Well, I think it depends on who you're asking and what they want to get out of it. The point is, is that the impact of the rankings has greatly exceeded their educational value. And students and parents deserve a better way of making good judgments about colleges.

Now, on the other hand, colleges have not done a very good job of acting like educational institutions. They've cooperated with the rankings. But as I mentioned, there's an attempt on the part of a growing number of college presidents to cooperate to provide more meaningful information along with guidance about how to approach this process a different than selecting a car, and tools with which to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Give me an example by what you mean by more meaningful information.

LLOYD THACKER: Well, I think that's a really good question. We would need to look at things such as the amount of learning that goes on, the learning outcomes, how much students have changed, and there are efforts to do this. But we just don't have that data presented in a systematic, easily accessible, comprehensive fashion. And that's what we're attempting to do.

Quantifying learning at colleges

GWEN IFILL: Is that possible, Brian Kelly, to quantify those kinds of things, how much learning actually happens?

BRIAN KELLY: Well, some of it is possible, and we'd like to see it. We'd like to see more of it. You know, I would like to see some kind of perhaps aggregate test score, so you knew what a student body out of a given school was doing compared to another school. I think there might be value in something like that.

There are some on-campus surveys that go on now, but they're very limited, and the school's really very reluctant to release that information, interestingly. So the kind of data Lloyd's talking about I think everybody wants. You know, we talk about it as output data. What are you getting out of the education? What's your campus experience like? No question, everyone I think is in agreement they'd want that, but I'd also say I wouldn't necessarily rely on the schools to provide that.

GWEN IFILL: How much of this, your magazine rankings -- how much of this is a marketing tool, not only for U.S. News, but also for institutions, like my alma matter, which sends me out a note saying, "Guess what? We ranked x on the list," like a Sports Illustrated for academia swimsuit issue sort of thing.

BRIAN KELLY: Well, there are two questions. You know, from our end of it, certainly we're in business. We are a journalistic organization. We're a publication, but we also make money. We sell the journalism that we produce, so we're not shy about saying that.

We rank a lot of things. We rank hospitals. We rank health care plans. You know, we think that hard data-driven journalism is a very effective way of providing information, especially on the Internet. What the schools do with it is not really up to us. I mean, some of them make too much of it, perhaps; some of them treat it responsibly. But, you know, it's a little bit out of our hands once the actual rankings are published.

GWEN IFILL: Lloyd Thacker, what happens to, in this kind of environment, to say poorer students who -- they look at these rankings, and perhaps that is not what's valued equally with acceptance rates or alumni-giving? Does that create an imbalance?

LLOYD THACKER: Well, certainly, the Education Conservancy has done some research which suggests that this rank steering or driving under the influence of the rankings have forced colleges to transfer money from the neediest students to the most desirable students in order to increase rank. And it's increased complexity and fear among those who are most needy, and that's why we have an access problem associated with this business of ranking.

Managing image to make rank

GWEN IFILL: So is the problem the way colleges react to the ranking, or is the problem the ranking itself?

LLOYD THACKER: It's both. We have colleges manage their image in order to make rank and reallocating billions of dollars from needy students to the most desirable students. And then we have those students who are disenfranchised being further disenfranchised by a process that is increasingly becoming more complex, and confusing, and costly as a result of the rankings.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a solution or alternative to the way that you do this which would improve on what these growing number of college presidents seem to think is a flawed process?

BRIAN KELLY: Well, you know, we think it's a good process. We've been doing this now for a long time. We don't just make this up. I mean, we're not educators; we're not social researchers. We're journalists. So we're very transparent about our methodology. It's based on reporting. It's based on talking to people in the industry. These factors are carefully weighted to make sure they're as fair and accurate as they can be.

And our feeling is, you know, we've become perhaps too popular for our own good, as Lloyd says, because people attribute too much authority to us. I think we're pretty humble about what our job is. We get the numbers right; we put them together; we publish them; and then people will have to make of them what they will.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Thacker, in a time when people really want more information for all the money they're going to be spending to send their kids to college, what is the alternative to this?

LLOYD THACKER: Well, the alternative is a comprehensive, easily accessible set of information that's relevant, and which has guidance about how to treat this decision-making process responsibly, and with tools that students can use to interact with that serve their educational needs.

This information -- as Brian said, they're not educators. Well, this is an important -- this tool or this process has very important educational implication, so it seems to me reasonable that educators be in charge of deciding what that information is and what guidance they will give and the tools for students to use in making decisions.

GWEN IFILL: Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy, and Brian Kelly of U.S. News and World Report, thank you both very much.

LLOYD THACKER: Thank you.