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Colleges Should Boycott Bogus Ratings Game
by PATRICIA MCGUIRE
I am one of 12 presidents who wrote a letter urging colleagues to take a stand for greater integrity in college rankings - starting by boycotting the magazine's equivalent of the "American Idol" voting process.
All presidents receive versions of the reputation survey organized by region. Mine lists 181 Northern universities, including schools as different as the behemoth City University of New York's Hunter College, with more than 20,000 students, and my Trinity, a historically Catholic women's college that's now a 1,600-student university.
The survey asks me to "rate the academic quality of undergraduate programs," assigning each school a single score using a 1-to-5 scale from "marginal" to "distinguished." That I have little real information about these 181 institutions does not seem to matter to the U.S. News editors.
The tabulated survey results will account for 25 percent of the total score they use to rank colleges and universities in the "Best Colleges" issue. In a cover letter reminiscent of a sweepstakes mailing, U.S. News informs me that I am "one of a select group of people" with "the broad experience and expertise needed to assess the academic quality of your peer institutions."
Most of what I know about these schools is through anecdotes, news stories and rumors. This reputation survey is just part of the larger problem with "Best Colleges," a misnomer that feeds into the American obsession with celebrity, prestige and list making. What's "best" educationally for an aspiring physicist is quite different from what's "best" for a future reading teacher.
In addition to the reputation survey, U.S. News collects lots of institutional data that it churns through its own formulas to score each school; those scores drive the rankings.
Universities that want to move up in the rankings dare not admit more low-income students from urban public schools who might lower the retention and completion rates.
U.S. News also provides an incentive for colleges to raise tuition because that means higher "educational expenditures per student" and more "faculty resources," which together account for 30 percent of the score. College presidents need to show some backbone and stop colluding in this unseemly beauty contest.
Privately, some presidential colleagues have said they agree with my position but are afraid to act publicly. But one of the essential tasks of leadership is to risk speaking the hard truth.
Colleges need to take back the responsibility for communicating educational results, starting with posting accreditation reports on websites.
The best way to assess a school's quality is to visit the campus, stay overnight in residence halls with other students, meet the faculty, sit in on classes and try on the "feel" of the place. Some of the actual best colleges in this nation do not fare well in the U.S. News survey because they do not have the wealth, big-time sports notoriety or public relations clout to influence the peer voting system.
Every March and April, in anticipation of the reputation survey, some university PR machines go into overdrive and crowd my desk with glossy brochures touting their accomplishments. A few presidents go so far as to appeal for my vote directly, sending personalized form letters extolling the virtues of their colleges. I rip those up and throw them away, where they commingle in the trash can with the U.S. News survey.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity University in Washington, D.C. This first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.