April 2, 2011 | Log In | Sign Up

America's Best College Scam


The recent disclosure by a college president that U.S. News & World Report is willing to publish made-up data about a college that dares not play the silly rankings game suggests just how far the magazine is willing to act like Tony Soprano to protect its lucrative franchise. And I'm not talking about the teddy bear Tony who likes his midnight ice cream splurges in his underwear and bathrobe. I'm talking about kick the marked man until he bleeds and leave him to rot in the New Jersey wastelands Tony Soprano.

Like the sweet Tony, U.S. News & World Report has been known as that nice middle-of-the-road magazine that your grandmother likes and the one students and their parents look to for reliable information about everything from hospitals to colleges, universities and graduate schools. In fact, as the nation's lowest ranking news magazine -- after Time and Newsweek -- U.S. News has endeavored mightily to maintain readership by ranking everything in sight. And none of its franchises in the "America's Best" ranking business comes close to the popularity of its annual college guide.

So what's the problem? Parents and students need good information about colleges and universities to make informed choices, right? I've got no problem with that premise. The problem is the dubious methodology -- and more important, the magazine's unstated ideology about the thorny question of academic merit -- which the magazine uses to sort "best" colleges from the also-rans.

In fact, while U.S. News appears to crunch all manner of numbers, from graduation rates to student/faculty ratios, in order to derive its rankings, there is just one factor that drives virtually the whole ranking scheme, and that is the SAT or ACT scores of an institution's entering freshman. Indeed, according to George D. Kuh and Ernest T. Pascarella, two highly regarded educational researchers who examined the magazine's list of the top 50 national universities, most of U.S. News' college quality factors are mere window dressing. "What this means is that for all practical purposes, U.S. News rankings of best colleges can largely be reproduced simply by knowing the average SAT/ACT scores of their students," Kuh and Pascarella concluded in a 2004 study. "Once the average SAT/ACT score is taken into account, the other so-called 'quality' indices have little additional influence on where an institution falls on the list."

I'm not a statistician, but it hardly requires a degree in econometrics to determine that graduation rates, student-faculty ratios, acceptance rates, alumni giving rates, and all the factors in the U.S. News methodology are profoundly correlated to the institution's selectivity -- how many freshman the institution accepts for admission relative to the number who apply. And none of these factors is related to selectivity more than freshmen SAT scores. In the U.S. News worldview of college quality, it matters not a bit what students actually learn on campus, or how a college actually contributes to the intellectual, ethical and personal growth of students while on campus, or how that institution contributes to the public good. College quality in the U.S. News paradigm boils down to the supposed quality of freshmen the day they pass through the ivory gates -- long before they write a single college essay or solve a physics problem.

And then, when you consider that student SAT scores are profoundly correlated parental income and education levels -- the social class that a child is born into and grows up with -- you begin to understand what a corrupt emperor "America's Best Colleges" really is.

The ranking amounts to little more than a pseudo-scientific and yet popularly legitimate tool for perpetuating inequality between educational haves and have nots -- the rich families from the poor ones, and the well-endowed schools from the poorly endowed ones. Toss in the most heavily weighted factor in the U.S. News survey, the assessment of deans, college presidents, admissions officials and others regarding their peer institutions (a beauty contest that constitutes a full 25 percent of the U.S. News ranking), and you get the perfect recipe for a self-perpetuating, class-based rankings system driven by brand names, marketing hype, and prestige.

It's no wonder then what a high-stakes and yet risk-averse game this is for colleges, college presidents and boards of trustees. U.S. News preys upon the naïveté of consumers as well as the American obsession with prestige and brand names. The out-of-whack importance of the rankings to the universities explains why the Arizona Board of Regents recently approved a bonus deal for Arizona State University president Michael Crow to pay him an extra $60,000 if he raises the institution's ranking in U.S. News.

When institutions play the game according to U.S. News' rules, genuine innovation in admissions practices is highly discouraged because the impacts on the institution are potentially costly. Colleges fear that emphasizing other student qualities besides test results in deciding whom to admit could cause a slip in their rankings, which could damage students' interest in applying, alumni donations and fundraising support. If you're that college's president, rest assured that while U.S. News is bumping you down the rankings scale, other institutions are eager to take your spot. U.S. News has the colleges by the balls, as it were, and none dare opt out and try to flee New Jersey for some quaint New Hampshire village. Tony will hunt you down.

All of which makes the story of Sarah Lawrence College so astonishing. A couple of years ago, the private liberal arts college decided to drop the SAT requirement, concluding that the entrance exam wasn't a very good predictor of success at Sarah Lawrence, and that the SAT testing culture simply did not mesh well with the institution's undergraduate emphasis on writing and, well, thinking. Because the college no longer required the exam, it stopped sending the scores to U.S. News. But, as college president Michele Tolela Myers revealed in a Sunday Washington Post op-ed piece, lacking the actual SAT data, U.S. News simply made up some numbers, arbitrarily assigning an SAT average of one standard deviation below Sarah Lawrence's peer institutions, the equivalent of about 200 SAT points.

According to Myers, U.S. News' director of research explained to her his reasoning: schools that chose to quit the SAT, he said, were admitting "less capable" students, and therefore ought to be downgraded in the rankings.

Did that research director offer Myers any empirical evidence to support the magazine's conclusion? That's not likely because virtually all the evidence I've seen on these questions, when colleges decide to drop or de-emphasize the SAT (Bates College and the University of Texas at Austin, among many others), is that academic performance at institutions is not harmed and in some instances actually improves when colleges drop the SAT. That, in fact, was the case at Sarah Lawrence as well, Myers says.

After consulting with the college faculty, Myers moved Sarah Lawrence into even more dangerous ground. The college decided to stop cooperating with the U.S. News survey, joining Reed College in Portland, Oregon, as another highly regarded school that has tried to opt out of the game. Then, at a 2006 trade meeting, a representative of U.S. News warned a gathering of officials from several colleges that the magazine would, in effect, punish any school that tried to opt out by assigning data equivalent to one standard deviation below the college's peer group on all its "quality" measures.

Though the Big Boss has laid down the law, it now appears that the rankings controversy may be reaching a critical juncture. According to Time magazine, there is now a move afoot by some higher education associations representing hundreds of small and mid-sized colleges to collectively opt of the U.S. News survey. Exactly which colleges are involved in this looming revolt is apparently a secret as they hash out a draft of an agreement.

All of which is well and good. But unfortunately, such a move by a collection of small and mid-sized colleges would likely put but a small dent in the U.S. News ranking machine. The magazine, it appears, has no qualms about publishing made-up numbers, and it will continue to ride this profitable "best colleges" hog until it blows up in the editors' faces.

At this juncture, I know of only one way for that implosion to happen. The really big dogs of the America higher education industry need to step up and do what's right. I'm talking about Harvard, Yale and Princeton. I'm talking about the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of California system.

A few years ago, the University of California system stood up to the College Board and forced the organization to develop a new SAT exam to more accurately reflect what students actually studied in high school. It's now time for the UC system and the elite private universities on the East Coast to stop playing the U.S. News rankings game -- for the sake of the integrity of the higher education enterprise and the public good.

To be sure, a Harvard or a Princeton could go on blissfully ignoring the damage the America's Best College scam is doing to higher education because these institutions are the main beneficiaries of the U.S. News worldview. But leaders of these institutions also understand that American higher education is deeply troubled. Rather than the great equalizer, American higher education over the past 20 years has forged itself into the great perpetrator of inequality, having created admissions and financial aid systems stacked heavily in favor of the most privileged.

Leaders of these institutions ought to take a lesson from one young Massachusetts woman named Esther Mobley. Attending a top-notch high school in an affluent suburb of Boston where parents buying high-priced SAT tutoring for their kids is like death and taxes, Mobley opted out, declining to take an SAT prep course. According to the New York Times, she did so on the simple principle that kids like her, growing up with Harvard-educated parents and every educational advantage, don't need or deserve such extra help.

While many will argue with Esther's decision, the larger message is this: At some point, the nation's elite universities have to stand up and say, "No." Not because refusal is in their own best interest, but because refusal is right for us all.

Thank you, Sarah Lawrence. And thank you, Esther Mobley.

 



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