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Who’s On First? College Ranking Systems

June 27, 2007, 1:11 pm

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities otherwise known as NAICU — is that pronounced “Nay-koo” or “Nay-soo?” — has rolled out a sample template that, when filled in with real data from real colleges, will allow potential students and their parents to compare institutions: the curious will be able to click on various parts of the webpages, and go to data bases kept by the colleges themselves that give more detailed information. You can read about this innovation in making the process of choosing a college even more time-consuming and hideous than it already is at the Chronicle of Higher Education: click here. This is part of a growing effort, I think, to topple the supremacy of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and sell colleges in ways that they wish to be sold rather than forcing them to meet criteria set by (yecch!) journalists.

You know, I think the way to really make the Tenured Radical 2.0 blog fly to a general audience would be to develop the Radical Ranking System for Colleges and Universities. Because I just have to ask — why do we need to rank colleges and universities in the first place? Who profits from this? And will it be so much better for each college or university to hire more institutional research people to assemble the data for NAICU than it is to have the little research bunnies over at US News and World Report tabulate the questionnaires? And under what circumstances might such a ranking really need to include, as the Chronicle so gracefully put it, “results from specific assessments of student-learning outcomes?” NAICU, by the way, is resisting this, because they claim that you can’t put all institutions in the same box, something I think pretty much everyone thinks is one major flaw of the current ranking system. Public universities apparently feel otherwise, since they have been bullied by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings into providing some kind of assessment of learning outcomes, because of ominous news that the Bush Administration was discussing a No Child Left Behind Act for public higher education as well.

Sometimes I almost think we should be grateful the administration is kept so busy screwing up the Middle East for decades to come. Imagine what they might accomplish if they had time on their hands.

I would like to make one point here which should illuminate the philosophical source of my sarcasm on the question of assessment and the question of ranking. It is not so much that it is dumb to put all colleges and universities in the same box: it’s dumb to put all students in the same box. What is wrong with “specific assessments of student-learning outcomes” is a) the point of education at all levels is for students to learn to assess themselves and figure out what they need to know; and b) the phrase “student-learning outcomes” is utterly meaningless.

Ranking and assessment assume that a college or a university is good when it can promise, in four years, to turn out a student who is a certain kind of well-functioning product. But students are not products: they are people who are evolving into citizens, workers and neighbors. Thus, students and their parents should not be comparing schools to each other. The correct comparison is to match up what the school offers with what the student herself thinks she wants. In less enlightened families, that will mean matching the school to what the parents want or will pay for. The NAICU plan will probably come closer to meeting this ideal, although personally I think people should just visit and talk to the students that are already on campus. They know, better than anyone, what is or is not happening in the classroom and the dorms.

At Zenith, folks are constantly having fits about some feature of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and I am sure there will be some movement in the fall to join these other SLACs in NAICU and secede from them. It is said that the Board of Trustees loves them and keeps pushing for a higher ranking, but I have hung out with a lot of trustees, and none of them has ever said such a thing to me, although perhaps this is out of fear that I will detonate myself if they do. I dunno. But I would say the chief detraction of the damn rankings is that every time there is some kind of policy change regarding class size or advising or whatnot, the assumption on the part of many of my colleagues is not that it is intended to help us do our job better, but that it is intended to elevate our rank, which usually hovers between 10 and 12. The good news is that nothing we have done has ever moved us more than a point in either direction, which allows everyone to sit in the faculty meeting where the ranking is announced and smirk happily.

There was, I would like to note, great dismay all around one year when Smith somehow managed to dunk on us. “A GIRLS’ SCHOOL!! AAAAAAAAH!!!!!” (Full disclosure: I have one family member who attended Smith and liked it very much, thank you.)

A Zenith student once wrote in a comment to this blog that s/he liked the rankings because, growing up in New Jersey, s/he had never heard of Zenith, and s/he discovered it through the national rankings. This caused me to wonder whether this student had grown up in the Pine Barrens or something, since everywhere you turn at Zenith there is a kid from New Jersey, but it was a good point all the same. The rankings advertise one’s presence; they make one known in places like New Jersey and Nebraska. But I also had another response, since it reminded me of that thing some people say when they are explaining why they are against abortion: “If my Mom had had an abortion when she was pregnant with me, I might never have been born!” to which my response is always — “So?” I mean, if I had never known about you, I wouldn’t have known to be sad that you weren’t here, right? And if you hadn’t known about Zenith, you might be playing tennis at Rollins getting a big tan in February, happy as a clam, and probably not saying all day, “I wish I were at Zenith where it’s really cold and icy all winter.”

You really would not. So I appreciate the inherent Kismet of this student having discovered Zenith, but that’s not why I like the rankings: I like them because I don’t have to do anything to make them happen, I am not responsible for them, and nothing that the rankings do or don’t do affects me in the least, for good or ill. They are one of the things in my life that I put in the win-win column. And given how hard I work on my teaching, scholarship and institutional labor, that is a fabulous thing indeed.

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Update: regular and sane readers need to know that I am temporarily exercising my God-given right to delete comments, since the trolls (or a single troll under several names) are once more spamming me with pointless ones. Those who wish to trade remarks with others who have contempt for me can exercise their freedom of speech here. If my blogger ethic is not clear enough, let me remind everyone that I take down comments that are unrelated to the blog post and/or have no purpose other than to insult me or someone else. As an example, I just took down a comment that insulted Pat Robertson by asserting that he was a friend of the Radical’s. I don’t know why someone would want to hurt Pat Robertson this way, but I’m not going to stand here and do nothing while they do.

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