Thursday, September 2, 2010

U. S. News & World Report College Rankings Almost Get it Perfect - From U. S. News Perspective

The U. S. News & World Report 2011 Undergraduate College rankings are out.

U.S. News unleashed the field of college ranking in 1983, skipped a year, and in 1985 started issuing the issue annually. It began evaluating graduate and professional schools in 1987.

U. S. News is the gold standard of college rankings. Robert Morse, its editor, is arguably the most powerful figure in higher education. Careers of Presidents, Chancellors, Provosts, and Deans rise or fall on the U.S. News rankings.

It’s taken 23 years, but the rankings are nearing perfection from U.S. News’ perspective. This year, for the first time, the top five universities are all Ivy League schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Penn (tied with Stanford).

All 8 Ivies rank in the top 16 of universities.

Up until now, U.S. News has had to struggle with Cal Tech, MIT, and Stanford mucking up its top rankings. Duke has also consistently been pesky.

The 2011 rankings have USC, the fabled “University of Second Choice” passing cross town rival UCLA for the first time.

2000 was an especially bad year for the rankings. The 1999 rankings had MIT at 4,
Caltech at 9 and Johns Hopkins at 14. For 2000 Caltech came in first, MIT third, and Johns Hopkins at 7. These are dramatic changes in one year. Pundits predicted that U.S. News would change its methodology.

Sure enough,Caltech dropped to 4th the next year, MIT to fifth, and Johns Hopkins plunged to 15th. Just to make sure everyone understood the settled order, the editor in charge of the 2000 rankings was terminated.

The original rankings were based solely on a survey of university presidents, in short academic reputations. Stanford was first, Berkeley 5th and Michigan 7th. Other great public universities, such as UCLA, Virginia, North Carolina, and Illinois were highly ranked.

The publication switched to “objective” criteria in 1987, and the publics tanked in the rankings. The criteria chosen were those designed to favor elite, private institutions of higher education.

For example, alumni contribution rates are used as a proxy for student satisfaction, but the reality is that students at the elite private schools are inculcated with the obligation to give back. That expectation does not exist at the public institutions, where the giving rates are in fact substantially lower.

Similarly, the admissions rate was used as a proxy for selectivity. A public university which, because of its mission to provide an education to the state’s population, has to admit a much higher percentage of students than an elite private school seating somewhere between 800-1,200 students, and hence scores lower.

Two measures, faculty resources and financial resources are especially pernicious. They not only favor the elite private schools, but play a role in driving up the cost of higher education.

Financial resources include the salaries and benefits of the faculty and student finances measures the average spending per student on “instruction, research, student services, and related expenditures.” The higher these expenditures, the higher the rankings. Only institutions with large endowments or annual fund raising success will reap high scores for these factors (30% of the total).

Public institutions facing rounds of state budget cuts will increasingly fall behind their private competitors. The effect is to drive up the costs of higher education since frugality is counterproductive for U.S. News.

Once the objective criteria were published, institutions learnt to game the system. For example, some institutions actively solicit applications, knowing they will deny the vast majority as unqualified, but boosting their selectivity. Similarly, many adopted early decision programs to lock in admittees, and again increase their selectivity.

A few schools were caught manipulating the contribution rate by taking an annual contribution, and spreading its receipt over a series of years to increase the annual percentage rate.

Law schools have other ways to game the numbers. Some schools have reduced the number of entering students so as to boost the median GPA’s and LSAT’s, but then make up the difference by accepting large numbers of transfer students. Their lower LSAT’s and GPA’s are not considered by U. S. News, but the transfers have a record of success and drive that will result in their passing the Bar Exam and finding gainful employment.

Many other schools accepted large numbers of part time students with lower LSAT’s and GPA’s than the full time students. Until last year, U.S. News ignored the part timers in its calculations.

Other law schools manipulated their placement rates.

The apocalyptic story is that someone once complained to U.S. News that its methodology favors the elite private universities. The response was “Where do you think we went to school?”

And yet, this theory theoretically fails because Robert Morse earned his B.A. in Economics from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA in Finance from Michigan State. Both are solid institutions of higher education, but neither ranks in the elite of American higher education.

No comments: