U.S. News & World Report just released its 2020 Best Colleges rankings, covering approximately 1,400 colleges and universities. For the ninth straight year, Princeton tops the National University list, followed, not unexpectedly, by Harvard in second. Columbia, MIT, and Yale tied for third. Williams College tops the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, and UCLA is No. 1 among Top Public Schools. All the schools ranked in the top 20 National Universities list in 2020 were in the top 20 in 2019. This rankings inertia stems from both institutional continuity and a largely repetitive methodology.
Though U.S. News has revised its methodology over time and continues to tinker with the weights assigned to various measures, fundamental problems remain with the approach, which is based on 15 measures of “academic quality.” It is too easy for schools to game the system and falsify data. Several of the U.S. News’s measures have become proxies for institutional wealth, and their relevance to academic quality is questionable. Nearly 50% of the weighted indicators are problematic on at least one of these grounds. Here are the most glaring problems:
- Alumni giving. The percentage of alumni who gave to their alma maters over the prior two years accounts for 5% of the ranking. U.S. News says that such giving indicates student satisfaction and continuing engagement with a school. But giving is a notoriously easy measure to falsify and bears little relevance to academic excellence. U.S. News dropped the University of Oklahoma and the University of California, Berkeley from the 2019 rankings for submitting false information about alumni donations. And just this month, evidence came to light that the University of Southern California regarded donations from applicants’ families as an admissions factor.
- Smaller class size, at 8%, is another dubious factor. There are two problems here. First, the evidence is equivocal at best that smaller classes produce better student learning yet U.S. News gives it more weight than first-year student retention or the graduation rates of Pell students. Second, would anyone be surprised to learn that colleges play a lot of games to jigger average class size, like capping initial class capacity only to allow more students to enroll later?
- SAT and ACT scores as a measure of student quality are weighted at 7.75%. One would think U.S. News might want to forget about standardized tests as a factor, given numerous revelations about the degree to which they are subject to cheating, a problem made so painfully apparent in the recent college admissions scandal. But that objection misses the bigger point: colleges use the SAT and ACT to exclude applicants so they can score higher on “student excellence,” turning the rejection of students into an institutional asset. And they are not above using various tricks – such as delaying the admission of low-scoring students to the spring semester so their test scores will not be included in the fall semester’s submitted data – to make entering students’ scores look better than they actually are.
- Faculty salary gets a 7% weighting despite the fact that U.S. News cannot assure that the highest paid faculty are the ones actually teaching undergraduates or that well-paid faculty are more engaged or successful with students than those who are less well-compensated. As a proxy for simple institutional wealth, this one tops the list.
- Academic reputation is valued at 20%. This is an entirely subjective measure at best and a bogus one at worst. U.S. News claims it measures reputation through a survey it sends to more than 4,000 college presidents, provosts, admission officers. (Thankfully, the survey of high school counselors used in the past as another measure of reputation was dropped this year.) Hundreds of colleges are included in the survey. How does any president or provost even pretend to know the academic quality of so many institutions, let alone make quantitative distinctions among them? No wonder some college presidents have admitted they delegate a staffer in their office to fill out the survey. Or worse, they confess that they downgrade the ratings of peer institutions to make their own college look better by comparison.
How much students and families rely on college rankings to make their college attendance decisions is uncertain, but clearly the ratings play some role. More clear, and perhaps more troubling, is how much effort and money colleges spend climbing for a higher rung on the prestige ladder. Lavish capital projects, lower academic expectations and lucrative scholarships for students without financial need are just three examples of expedient and often expensive strategies that colleges continue to use in an unworthy pursuit for higher rankings.
Original Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2019/09/09/us-news-releases-its-annual-college-ranking-heres-whats-wrong-with-it/#5624c5f4a5c1