ERIC Identifier: ED468728
Publication Date: 2002-00-00
Author: Holub, Tamara
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher
Education Washington DC.
College Rankings. ERIC Digest.
The popularity of college ranking surveys published by U.S. News and World
Report, Money magazine, Barron's, and many others is indisputable. However, the
methodologies used in these reports to measure the quality of higher education
institutions have come under fire by scholars and college officials. Also
contentious is some college and university officials' practice of altering or
manipulating institutional data in response to unfavorable portrayals of their
schools in rankings publications.
In college rankings publications, as opposed
to college guides which offer descriptive information, a judgment or value is
placed on an institution or academic department based upon a publisher's
criteria and methodology (Stuart, 1995, p. 13). In the United States, academic
rankings first appeared in the 1870s, and their audience was limited to groups
such as scholars, higher education professionals, and government officials
(Stuart, 1995, pp.16-17). College rankings garnered mass appeal in 1983, when
U.S. News and World Report's college issue, based on a survey of college
presidents, was the first to judge or rank colleges (McDonough, Antonio,
Walpole, and Perez, 1998, p. 514). In today's market, the appeal of college
ranking publications has increased dramatically. Time magazine estimates that
prospective college students and their parents spend about $400 million per year
on college-prep products, which include ranking publications (McDonough et al.,
1998, p. 514).
POPULARITY OF COLLEGE RANKINGS
Hunter (1995) believes that
the popularity of rankings publications can be attributed to several factors:
growing public awareness of college admissions policies during the 1970s and
1980s; the public's loss of faith in higher education institutions due to
political demonstrations on college campuses; and major changes on campus in the
1960s and 1970s such as coeducation, integration, and diversification of the
student body, which forced the public to reevaluate higher education
institutions (p. 8). Parents of college-bound students may also use reputational
rankings that measure the quality colleges as a way to justify their sizable
investment in their children's college education. (McDonough et al., 1998, p.
COLLEGE RELIANCE ON RANKINGS AND GENERAL CRITICISMS OF THE
College administrators have increasingly relied on rankings
publications as marketing tools, since rising college costs and decreasing state
and federal funding have forced colleges to compete fiercely with one another
for students (See Hossler, 2000; Hunter, 1995; McDonough et al., 1998).
According to Machung (1998), colleges use rankings to attract students, to bring
in alumni donations, to recruit faculty and administrators, and to attract
potential donors (p. 13). Machung asserts believes that a high rank causes
college administrators to rejoice, while a drop in the rankings often has to be
explained to alumni, trustees, parents, incoming students, and the local press
(1998, p. 13).
Criticisms of rankings publications have proliferated as scholars, college
administrators, and higher education researchers address what they perceive as
methodological flaws in the rankings. After reviewing research on rankings
publications, Stuart (1995) identified a number of general methodological
problems: 1) Rankings compare institutions or departments without taking into
consideration differences in purpose and mission; 2) Reputation is used too
often as a measure of academic quality; 3) Survey respondents may be biased or
uninformed about all the departments or colleges they are rating; 4) Rankings
editors may tend to view colleges with selective admissions policies as
prestigious; and 5) One department's reputation may indiscriminately influence
the ratings of other departments on the same campus (pp. 17-19).
U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT'S "AMERICA'S BEST COLLEGES"
most specific criticism has been directed against U.S. News and World Report's, "America's Best Colleges," published since 1990 and the most popular rankings
guide. Monks and Ehrenberg (1999) investigated how U.S. News determines an
institution's rank, basing their study on statistics from U.S. News' 1997
publication. They found that U.S. News takes a weighted average of an
institution's scores of in seven categories of academic input and outcome
measures as follows: academic reputation (25%); retention rate (20%); faculty
resources (20%); student selectivity (15%); financial resources (10%); alumni
giving (5%); and graduation rate performance (5%) (Monks and Ehrenberg, 1999, p.
45). These categories were further divided and 16 variables were used as
measurements. McGuire (1995) asserts that the variables U.S. News uses to
measure quality are usually far removed from the educational experiences of
students (McGuire, 1995, p. 47). For example, U.S. News measures the average
compensation of full professors, a sub factor of the faculty resources variable
mentioned above. McGuire argues that this variable implies that well-paid
professors are somehow better teachers than lower-paid professors-an implication
unsupported by direct evidence.. He says that "In the absence of good measures,
poor measures will have to suffice because the consumer demand for some type of
measurement is strong and the business of supplying that demand is lucrative" (McGuire, 1995, p. 47). Along the same lines, Hossler (2000) believes that
better indicators of institutional quality are outcomes and assessment data that
focus on what students do after they enroll, their academic and college
experiences, and the quality of their effort (p. 23).
Monks and Ehrenberg (1999) found that U.S. News periodically alters its
rankings methodology, so that "changes in an institution's rank do not
necessarily indicate true changes in the underlying 'quality' of the
institution" (p. 45). They contend note, for example, that the California
Institute of Technology jumped from 9th place in 1998 to 1st place in 1999 in
U.S. News, largely due to changes in the magazine's methodology (Monks and
Ehrenberg, 1999, p. 44). Ehrenberg (2000) details how a seemingly minor change
in methodology on the part of U.S. News can have a dramatic effect on an
institution's ranking (p. 60). Machung (1998) states that "The U.S. News model
itself is predicated upon a certain amount of credible instability" (p. 15). The
number one college in "America's Best Colleges" changes from year to year, with
the highest ranking fluctuating among 20 of the 25 national universities that
continually vie for the highest positions in the U.S. News rankings (Machung,
1998, p. 15). Machung asserts that "new" rankings are a marketing ploy by U.S.
News to sell its publication (1998, p. 15).
Although eighty percent of American college students enroll in public
colleges and universities, these schools are consistently ranked poorly by U.S.
News (Machung, 1998, p. 13). Machung (1998) argues that the U.S. News model
works against public colleges by valuing continuous undergraduate enrollment,
high graduation rates, high spending per student, and high alumni giving rates
(p. 13). She also contends that the overall low ranking of public colleges by
U.S. News is a disservice to the large concentration of nontraditional students
(over 25, employed, and with families to support) enrolled in state schools
(Machung, 1998, p. 14).
COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY RESPONSES TO RANKINGS
university officials have responded to the unfavorable or undesirable rankings
placement of their institutions in a variety of ways. Some ignore the rankings,
others refuse to participate in the surveys, and many respond by altering or
misrepresenting institutional data presented to rankings publications (See
Stecklow, 1995; Machung, 1998; Monks and Ehrenberg, 1999). By examining the
inconsistencies between the information colleges presented to guidebooks and the
information they submitted to debt-rating agencies in accordance with federal
securities laws, Stecklow (1995) has documented how numerous colleges and
universities have manipulated SAT scores and graduation rates in order to
achieve a higher score in the rankings publications (p. A1). He noted that many
colleges have inflated the SAT scores of entering freshman by deleting the
scores from one or more of the following groups: international students,
remedial students, the lowest-scoring group, or and learning disabled students.
Although many college officials admit that this practice raises ethical
concerns, they continue these manipulations because there are no legal obstacles
preventing such action. Stecklow asserts says that many surveyors such as Money
magazine, Barron's, and U.S. News do not always check the validity of the data
submitted to them by colleges (1995, p. A1).
Since many published rankings have been
perceived as biased, uninformative, or flawed, a number of higher education
practitioners encourage parents and prospective students to do their own
research on colleges, to view alternative college prep publications, and to view
the rankings publications with a critical eye.
Ehrenberg, R.G. (2000). Tuition rising: Why
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Hunter, B. (1995). College guidebooks: Background and development. New
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McDonough, P.M., Antonio, A.L., Walpole, M., & Perez, L.X. (1998).
College rankings: Democratized college knowledge for whom? Research in Higher
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McGuire, M.D. (1995). Validity issues for reputational studies. New
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Monks, J., & Ehrenberg R.G. (1999). U.S. News & World Report's
college rankings: Why they do matter. Change, 31 (6), 43-51.
Rankings caution and controversy. Retrieved April 29, 2002, from the
Education and Social Science Library, University of Illinois at
Stecklow, S. (1995, April 5). Cheat sheets: Colleges inflate SATs and
graduation rates in popular guidebooks - Schools say they must fib to U.S. News
and others to compete effectively - Moody's requires the truth. The Wall Street
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Stuart, D. (1995). Reputational rankings: Background and development. New
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