Backlash building against college rankings

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

As the annual binge of college rankings crests this week, Ethan Haines isn’t just fed up. He’s fed out. 

The unemployed law school grad launched a hunger strike Aug. 5 to protest U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings and the undue influence he believes that yearly index has on college selections and, eventually, law firm hires.

His criticisms: The magazine’s rankings contain “inaccurate” employment stats and “ineffective” career counseling. What’s more, law schools collaborate with the magazine which, Haines argues, skews the profession’s already-brutal entry-level environment.

“This is a plea for reform,” Haines wrote in an e-mail interview. He has forwarded his “official notice” to 10 law schools plucked “randomly” from U.S. News’ top 100. He wants them to address “the public’s overwhelming reliance on these controversial rankings” which, he contends, hurts law students by “increasing the cost of legal education.” Haines won’t reveal his age or alma mater because, he said, his anonymity boosts the sense that young lawyers have a “united front.” But his blog describes what he’s feeling — cramps, headaches, muscle weakness — and what he’s lost, 10 pounds in 12 days.

“If the same tactics are used in (ranking) undergrad as in law school, then I have the same concerns,” Haines wrote to msnbc.com. “If you are undertaking a major where your undergrad institution is irrelevant, then you should not be cajoled into attending a higher-ranked institution at a higher cost just because someone says that is the only way to get hired.” For some students, the chance to attend college “is a matter of survival. Rankings ... should not exploit this desire.”

Haines’ ravenous rant comes amid a feast of fresh college rankings. This month, U.S. News & World Report (law schools), the Princeton Review and Forbes Magazine all published separate lists. On Tuesday, U.S. News offers its “2011 Best Colleges” analysis.

Echoing the unemployed lawyer, however, a backlash is building against the thickening crowd of college reviewers. According to many parents, students and educators, the annual lists are misleading and unhelpful — and some fail to focus on a pressing issue: value.

“I do not like the rankings,” said Kristin Hiemstra, a high school guidance counselor in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The same way designer labels define the perceived value of the popular high school clique, designer college rankings define the perceived value of a particular school’s education. In the same way poor-fitting designer clothes are a waste of money so is a poor (college) match. ... When a student is a good match for a school, they will learn more about themselves. ... This highly personal aspect of education is not measurable.”

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Of course, many students pick colleges simply because the schools score high in exclusivity. The name on the diploma can make or break a job applicant’s candidacy.

“When the Wall Street Journal ranked Johns Hopkins (University) as one of the 10 most expensive schools in the country, it cemented our decision — though it sounds strange,” said Judy Schaffer, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. Her son attends Hopkins. “We are willing to pay for the prestige, networking and quality of staff that Hopkins offers. ... The people who belittle the importance of top-ranked schools may not understand the value of the connections these schools provide.”

Still, the once-mighty power of college rankings has unquestionably slipped among parents who are shopping more cautiously for education, said Mike Sexton, whose two daughters recently graduated from colleges.

“The (lists) have lost their misplaced position of importance,” Sexton said. The erosion of their relevance, he added, has been accelerated by market clutter: “Every magazine has to have some slant on colleges and everybody and their mother keeps writing new books on college admissions.”

A college admissions executive himself, Sexton has joined other academics in specifically chastising U.S. News & World Report.

“I share some wide-held concerns about the ability for the magazine to determine ‘best.’ This is not unique to U.S. News,” said Sexton, vice president of enrollment management at Santa Clara University. “In America, we want to keep score. We want winners and, therefore, ‘lessers.’ We want simple answers to often complex questions, the college search being a prime example.”

Sexton is one of 15 college admissions officials who advise the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit launched in 2005 to help applicants “overcome commercial interference in college admissions,” its website says. In 2007, the Conservancy drafted a letter, signed by 65 college presidents, rebuking the U.S. News & World Report rankings as a tool of “false precision” that overemphasizes “prestige” and encourages “wasteful spending.” The 65 presidents, representing schools including Dickinson College, Drew University and San Francisco State, pledged not to cooperate with the magazine or use its rankings in promotional materials.

U.S. News & World Report still surveys, according to the magazine, more than 1,400 colleges to assemble its hierarchical pecking order of undergrad schools. To stack the schools, the magazine uses a weighted set of data points provided by the universities, including student retention, student selectivity and alumni giving, the magazine’s website explains. What’s more, U.S. News asks college presidents to assess their peers — asking them to score the academics at competing colleges from five (“distinguished”) to one (“marginal”).

“We believe we’re filling a void,” said Robert Morse, the magazine’s data research director. “The cost of education is going up faster than ever. There are reduced counseling resources at high schools from budget cuts. People are left on their own to try figure out where the best schools are. We’re providing information to help them do that.”

That law colleges and legal firms apply significance to the U.S. News rankings is not the magazine’s fault, said Morse, who vowed to “try to reach out to” Haines. He added that the rugged financial realities faced by new lawyers, including a decline in top-paying jobs, are beyond any magazine’s control. “Students are getting frustrated — they’re frustrated at the legal profession and the economy.”

But within the larger world of undergraduate schools, U.S. News also has been chided by educators for raising the stakes of student recruitment. Several colleges have overtly manipulated — and, thus, elevated — their standing in the magazine’s rankings. A lofty position on that index can lure more applicants and, of course, increase revenue. During a 2009 gathering of the Association for Institutional Research in Atlanta, one educator revealed how such “gaming” occurred at Clemson University. Catherine Watt, who headed Clemson’s institutional research office until 2006, told the forum that Clemson artificially inflated faculty salaries, purposely gave rival schools low grades and fudged class-size stats — all to ascend the U.S. News rankings.

“You’re going to see this sort of gaming behavior in any system where the grading rubric is public knowledge,” said Jodi N. Beggs, who earned a master’s degree in economics at Harvard University and who is completing her Ph.D. there.

Beggs was impacted by the rankings trickery in 2005 when she lectured on economics at Northeastern University. “I had to give two identical (non-interactive) lectures back-to-back because the department capped enrollment in the classes at 49 so that it could get a high score on (lists that lauded schools for) how many classes had fewer than 50 students. I don’t think that this was really beneficial for the students; it (also) added to the costs for the university.

“I am not trying to criticize the university,” Beggs added. Northeastern was simply “playing within context of the system that has been set up for it.”

One of the chief distinctions the Princeton Review draws between its lists and competitors’ rankings involves “gaming.” Because the Princeton Review collects feedback only from surveys of 122,000 students — and plugs those into three previous years of data — “our rankings are not gameable,” said Robert Franek, senior vice president of the publication.

Best known for its lineup of top party schools, the Princeton Review (which is not affiliated with Princeton University) bases its assessments on how “students rate their schools. ... Best fit is what matters the most ... And that requires knowing way more about a school than its academic credentials.

“All college ranking lists aren't the same. But since the early 1990s when we debuted ... so many others have (emerged), it is understandable that people ... tend to see them all in the same old boat,” Franek added. “To some extent, applicants are suffering from ‘rankings fatigue.’ Which ones can you trust?”