College rankings don't tell the whole story

September 27, 2002|By Ronald J. Volpe

ONE OF the most popular and despised instruments purporting to measure the quality of colleges and universities will, as it has for 20 years, have college presidents and deans all in a lather.

The U.S. News & World Report Guide to Colleges and Universities has been the object of scorn and derision to those in higher education who believe that such institutions cannot be measured by numbers derived from formula, scales or numerical analysis of any kind.

These rankings are derived from data supplied by the individual schools to the magazine's editors.

Many schools, such as St. John's College in Annapolis, do not supply data for rankings because, they rightly assert, the benefits of such a distinctive school with its rigorous and unique curriculum cannot be compared fairly with those of dissimilar institutions.

Others participate willingly. It is no secret that college presidents and deans send targeted mailings to peers within their categories to influence the reputation scores that account for 25 percent of a school's total score.

Critic or not, no one can deny that many of the factors that go into these rankings are factors by which we in the academic world judge ourselves. We know that small classes, well-paid faculty, generous financial aid, high graduation rates and towering alumni contribution rates all contribute to the relative quality of colleges and universities; no college administrator would deny this.

The critics, in many ways correctly, decry the use of the ratings because they say these factors do not tell the entire story about any particular institution. Of course they don't, just as an automobile's quality is not accurately gauged by its top speed, its braking distance or the miles per gallon it gets.

In academia, we must and do view any sort of research or theory with a critical eye. For two decades, these rankings have drawn critical analyses, critiques and the occasional scholarly paper, most of which denigrate or call for the cessation of the servile instruments of competition. Alas, that will not happen, for it is data-hungry parents and college-bound high-schoolers who buy these guides by the millions.

The fact is, about 11 percent of college freshmen surveyed this year said that rankings in national magazines influenced their college selection decisions. But we can rest assured that they, and the other 89 percent, used many other tools in making their choices as to which college they would attend.

As parents, we should use these and any other measures of quality as they apply to colleges and universities for what they are -- one means of measurement. Those of us in the business of recruiting college freshmen know that one of the best and most effective ways to find the best college fit is to conduct good, primary research. That is, visit campuses, speak with the professors who will be the teachers, explore the residence halls that will be home and walk the campus that will be the alma mater for life.

We are all in the competitive environment, all of us vying for the attention of America's best and brightest, which is actually beneficial for everyone. It is this environment that keeps college administrators on their toes, always striving to provide the best education possible for the leaders of tomorrow.

The rankings will continue so long as the college-buying public continues to purchase the magazines and books that report them. College and university administrators should continue to strive to improve their institutions, which will, in turn, improve the state of higher education in the United States.

Parents and their sons and daughters whom we call "prospective freshmen" should use every tool at their disposal in their search for the college, and the education, that will change their lives for the better, regardless of where it is, or how it is ranked.

Ronald J. Volpe is the president of Hood College in Frederick.

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