Publications still pull rank on colleges

The Education Beat

Schools: One thing certain about the unscientific ratings is that they make money for those who publish them.

October 16, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

I'D THOUGHT the annual season of college rankings -- usually August and September -- had reached a merciful conclusion.

Until last week, when the University of Maryland, College Park announced proudly that its Robert H. Smith School of Business had "jumped" from 27th to 25th in Business Week's biennial rating of business school quality.

"Jumped" from 27th to 25th? Yes, and it meant enough to College Park that it put out a press release announcing the honor, based largely on surveys of companies, corporate leaders and graduates of the school.

FOR THE RECORD - On Oct. 16, I said Towson University printed new stationery to trumpet a favorable rating in U.S. News & World Report's annual college issue. In fact, the university marked the accomplishment by affixing stickers to its official stationery.

These rankings mean much to colleges and universities, even if they are quasi-scientific in nature or, as is often the case, if they are totally unscientific. And even if they are widely disparaged within the academy.

What difference do the rankings make? Commenting on the Business Week survey, The Economist noted Saturday that "those that rise in the ranks will gain more eager applicants. Schools that fall will face recriminations from alumni and trustees alike."

But schools on the rise get mentioned by the likes of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who boasted to a gathering of Maryland higher education leaders yesterday that the University of Maryland is listed 65 times in top-25 rankings.

Business Week is one of many popular publications playing the ratings game. The Wall Street Journal recently found the Smith School 16th best in the world, basing its estimation on the opinions of corporate recruiters. Newsweek is in the ranking business big-time. And, of course, the leader in the field is U.S. News & World Report, which this year found College Park's undergraduate business program 18th-best in the nation.

U.S. News, having been involved in the numbers game longest, is the most quoted of the college raters. Its annual "America's Best Colleges" issue nearly doubles normal circulation. It's the equivalent of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

It's astonishing that people take U.S. News' rankings as seriously as they do. The magazine cloaks its annual survey in science, evaluating 16 indicators based on information provided by the colleges and universities. But any parent or prospective student can go to the public library or online to get most of the same information from Peterson's (which has been evaluating schools for nearly four decades) or any number of other college guides that do everything the magazines do but place the schools in rank order.

When colleges move up a couple of ticks, they go crazy. A few years ago, Towson University replaced all of its official stationery to note in the letterhead that U.S. News had bestowed a high ranking. When the university slipped the next year, the stationery had to be tossed. The problem with the numbers game is that downs very often follow ups.

Many of the rankings are purely and simply glamour contests, and no one tries to drape them in scientific clothing. I enjoy Newsweek's annual issue, which this year put College Park (along with Harvard, Princeton and Florida State) in a list of "hot and trendy dream schools." My kind of place.

The same Aug. 26 issue listed the University of Maryland, Baltimore County among 12 "hot" colleges, where "it's cool to be smart."

UMBC will celebrate that designation at a reception this month at which President Freeman A. Hrabowski will play host to university donors.

Then there are the rankings in which no school wants to excel. Several years ago, one of the magazines named St. Mary's College of Maryland among the nation's finest party schools. The college is still living down that reputation, even though St. Mary's appears regularly in rankings of "best bargains" and "best public liberal arts" colleges.

This year, it was Indiana University's turn. Princeton Review named it the nation's top party school, whereupon Dean of Students Richard McKaig reacted indignantly. "The notion of party school has become synonymous with alcohol, which is a perversion," he said. (Playboy, which bases its party school rankings exclusively on the "quality" of nominating letters, honored Arizona State University, failing to mention Indiana in its top 25.)

You wonder why the colleges and universities don't come up with their own rankings. Or, if internal wrangling and jealousies prevent them from evaluating themselves, why they don't refuse to cooperate with U.S. News and the rest.

The answer to the first is that there are some quality measurement systems, those of the National Research Council and others. The University of Maryland, to its credit, uses them in reporting annually to the General Assembly.

The answer to the second is that a few schools are boycotting U.S. News, but the vast majority still play the ranking game. It's simply too tempting. The magazines know this - and laugh all the way to the bank.

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