College Disorder

You may have seen this article in this week’s New York Times: Colleges Join Forces on a Web Presence to Let Prospective Students Research and Compare

This is good news. It’s encouraging to see colleges taking the initiative to do something about the ranking obsession aspect of ACD. (Acquired College Disorder – a pernicious disease that is highly contagious and very destructive.)

With the pressure on from all kinds of sources including congress and a commission created by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, colleges are about to provide a response to the demands for comparison information and statistics.

Colleges, universities and their associations have been working to develop formats and sets of statistics that make meaningful comparisons possible. With this collaboration colleges can emerge from splendid isolation that has left them at the mercy of the rankers. It will enable students and their families and schools to make more meaningful comparisons between and amongst higher education options.

Until now this task has mostly been left to the media – notably US News and World Report which started its annual ranking system in 1983 and has found its annual college issue a great boost to circulation.

This move follows the decision of many college presidents to refuse to cooperate with US News in providing information to fuel their annual college rankings where reputations slide up and down on the basis of obscure and, in many cases, totally meaningless data. (One item asks college presidents to rank institutions on a scale of 1-5. This reputation survey is heavily weighted and counts for 25 percent of the final result. “That’s enough about me, what do you think of me?” is not exactly hard data.) Those boycotting the survey object to its flawed methodology and its distorting impact.

The results of this entire information gathering will be published on the web. And it could be up and available by September. It will include key data on the numbers of students who apply (to an institution), the number accepted, the number enrolled. It will include data on graduation rate, composition of the student body, students with loans and financial aid, and average net tuition.

Public universities plan to go even further and publish data on learning and the college learning environment – student engagement, including survey results on students’ overall satisfaction, and participation in group learning experiences. They will additionally provide statistics on student learning outcomes, based on standardized tests that measure things like critical thinking and analytic writing.

A third initiative, by the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 research universities, aims to present data on student performance and costs.

The end result has to be helpful – providing an accessible data- based means of comparisons between and amongst college options. And anything that can begin to erode the pernicious influence of the college ranking mania has to be a good thing. If a college wants to be number one then let it identify number one in what areas and with specifics to back it up. Those shopping for a good college match may then be able to weigh their own factors and make the choice accordingly.

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