Colleges flunk the trendy ratings game

November 01, 1996|By Nick Thompson

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- My 17-year-old sister has a collage of teen-age vices strewn across her floor: cool Absolut Vodka advertisements, magazines with anorexic women on the cover and, the craftiest demon of them all, U.S. News & World Report's guide to ''America's Best Colleges.''

This subjective guide to choosing colleges includes a number of useful articles along with the famous college rankings. The rankings are justified, according to the magazine, because ''when consumers invest in simple household appliances, this sort of information is freely available. We think it should be similarly available for an educational investment that can cost more than $110,000.''

Unfortunately, contrary to the ostensible goals of the magazine (the obvious unstated goal is to make money), these rankings have an enormous negative impact on both college applicants and the colleges themselves.

Doing the Hopkins bounce

The impact on applicants like my sister is fairly obvious. The rankings are arbitrary and absurdly counter-intuitive in their yearly variance -- can a stable university like Johns Hopkins really change from being the 21st-best school in the nation to the 10th and then back to 15th in a three-year period? However, they are taken as dogma by many applicants. Consequently, many high school students choose colleges based on the subjective rankings of U.S. News, not on what is best for them or their individual needs.

And because of the rankings, colleges now have a definitive, zero-sum standard by which they can be judged -- like household appliances.

tTC Not surprisingly, the administrations at these schools don't push for what is best for their institutions, but for what is best for the U.S. News rankings.

Consider Stanford -- my school -- which is ranked the sixth-best overall in the country. In the past few years, a cynical new grading policy has been implemented, nontraditional departments have been cut and a new early-admissions program has been created partly in an attempt to subtly improve our ''academic reputation,'' or as my friends and I put it, to ''Harvardize'' what has been a unique and pioneering institution.

Most blatantly, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been put into the Stanford Fund, a new program aimed at increasing the percentage of alumni who give. The purpose of the Stanford Fund, as explained to me by the student coordinator, is simply to improve our U.S. News ranking by bumping up our data in the category in which we do the worst. Sadly, many of my peers are excited to work for the Stanford Fund because they know that their egos and future employment potential rest to some degree on Stanford's place in the accepted hierarchy of colleges.

Of course, Stanford students are not the only ones susceptible to this baiting. If you check the Yale Daily News' Web page, you'll notice that their top item of national news importance is the U.S. News article crowning Yale as America's best college.

Even more sadly, as a student-body government official concerned about the content of a Stanford education, the number of changes I can successfully lobby for is limited to those that will have a positive impact on our ''ranking.''

It would be easy for U.S. News to provide the same information to prospective college applicants without inflicting the side effects. All they would have to do would be to eliminate the overall rankings and instead list schools alphabetically, providing all the current information: alumni satisfaction, faculty resources, etc. The only change would be the elimination of U.S. News' subjective bias. If alumni satisfaction is important for prospective students, they should stay away from Stanford; if prospective students care more about academic reputation, then they should head for Palo Alto.

But if they want a school that isn't interested in selling out its education, they should go to Reed College in Oregon -- the only school in the country that refuses to provide information to U.S. News, and, as it has said, ''to behave as if [it is] hostage to the rankings.''

Nick Thompson is vice president of the Stanford University student body. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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