At the end of the sessions on college rankings, Jeffrey Brenzel of Yale said that he, Robert Morse of U.S. News, and Richard Vedder of Ohio University, agreed on three points: that families need information and ways to compare colleges; that there are limits to a numerical ranking system; and that colleges have failed to provide enough comparable data to prospective students. He said that he also agreed with Vedder on a “do-it-yourself” rankings model where students could compare colleges based on the variables most important to them. Morse said that U.S. News is actually working on a do-it-yourself system.
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In response to this question, Jeffrey Brenzel, the admissions director at Yale, explained that there has been a movement to boycott the reputation survey portion of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and many schools, including Yale, refuse to fill out this portion of the survey. Schools can’t back out of the rankings totally, he said. “You will appear in the rankings whether you supply the information or not. Would Yale be in the position to back out of the rankings? Think broadly about the feasibility of this. The greatest incentive would be a viable alternative to the U.S. News rankings, and colleges should collaborate on this alternative.”
The question is, what kind of entity is capable of gathering data and providing a tool for comparison of colleges and universities. The need for families to have information is critical, and all three panelists agree on this point.
Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, is developing a new ranking system for Forbes magazine. The Forbes ranking focuses more on student preferences and outcome measurements than U.S. News, he said.
He gave an impassioned defense of rankings: Colleges are in a losing battle fighting against rankings. “It’s anti-American to be anti-ranking,” he said. He admitted shortcomings with the rankings, but placed much of the blame on the colleges themselves for refusing to provide enough information. “Many college leaders are afraid that their school will be exposed,” he said.
He favors a “do-it-yourself” system where students can decide what is most important to them and then have access to that data and compare it to what other colleges offer.
Robert Morse, director of data research from U.S. News & World Report, said colleges have made the U.S. News ranking the power that it is. U.S. News doesn’t market it’s ratings or push its product, he said. The colleges are using our rankings as validation, and this has snowballed over time. The effect of the rankings has compounded as the free information is accessed through the Internet.
U.S. News sees their work as a consumer-oriented mission. “We want to help students make choices in the face of rising tuition, room and board bills. We believe we are transparent on how we do the rankings, and we publish this information on our Web site. Over the last 25 years, U.S. News has become a trusted source for these rankings, and the public does turn to us,” Morse said.
Morse acknowledged that there have been questionable outcomes as a result of the rankings. These include the following (1) rankings have created a competitive environment in higher ed that didn’t exist before (2) U.S. News is the annual public benchmark for academic performance, which was not the magazine’s original intention (3) Moving up in U.S. News & World Report rankings has become a very public goal of some colleges, and this may mean policy choices are being made for the purpose of the rankings.
“It’s true that there have been some unintended consequences of rankings, but it can be argued that rankings’ time has come. Rankings are in the forefront of higher education discussions in the U.S. and around the world. Rankings are here to stay though the controversy will continue,” Morse said.
Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale, says colleges are missing the point to simply criticize U.S. News for its college rankings. They do satisfy the raging public demand for information and clarity in a process that is very complicated and time-consuming for most families. “We seriously misstate the challenge by pointing a finger at U.S. News as a cause of the problem,” he said. U.S. News fills their niche for three reasons: a consumer society that’s trained us to rely on rankings; the high stakes and information overload of the college-search process; and U.S. News has done a very good job building, promoting and guarding their niche.
But why are rankings bad, Brenzel asked? He listed several reasons: rankings are often based on things that are irrelevant to the actual educational experience a student receives; they allow students to avoid the hard work that should go into choosing a college that’s best for oneself; they cause students to assign their own self-worth to the ranking of the college they attend; and there are many excellent colleges that offer certain things that a student might be seeking.
Brenzel is part of a group seeking to offer an alternative system. It should have four elements: access to wide variety of data; students decide for themselves what factors to weigh based on what’s most important to them; it must contain tools to help guidance counselors help students decide the best college for them; and it should have user generated data (students rate what was most important in choosing their college and then rate their experience once in college.)
The final session of the conference promises to be a great one. Robert Morse, director of Data Research for U.S. News & World Report; Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale; and Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and the architect of a new college-ranking system for Forbes, are the final speakers. Brenzel is up first: “We’re ending things with a bang. Few issues are more contentious than rankings.” Responds Morse: it’s the colleges that have made rankings powerful. Now Morse is warning Vedder of the criticism he can expect with the new Forbes’ ranking — “welcome to the club.” More soon.
Omari Swinton, a professor at Howard University, discussed a study he conducted on Benedict College’s policy of grading students on both effort and knowledge. Because Benedict College has an open admissions policy, SAT scores and high school GPAs are irrelevant to whether or not a student is accepted. His findings did indicate that higher GPAs and SAT scores predicted student behavior better for first-year students than for sophomores, juniors and seniors. He also suggested that colleges and universities who admit men and women with lower SAT or ACT scores and difficult life experience may need to find ways to help these students develop the skills needed to succeed.
Scott Highhouse, professor of industrial-organization psychology at Bowling Green State University, challenged the current assumption that “holistic approaches” to college admissions is better than mechanical ones. “I’m not going to advocate for the SAT,” he said right off the bat, but for standardized procedures, whatever they might be. He is an expert in industrial-organization psychology – how you select and assess people.
A holistic approach sounds great, but hasn’t lived up to its expectations, he said. Why do people believe that an intuitive approach to assessment is superior to an analytical one? Because they have an erroneous belief in their ability to predict human behavior, he said. When looking at things such as high school grades and college GPA, you can measure a certain level of correlation. But when you add in human opinion to that equation the results are actually less reliable. Test scores aren’t perfect measures, but are not improved by adding a holistic approach, he concluded.
Panelist Steve Chatman presented findings from his study with University of California students that suggest those factors predicting success vary according to what discipline a student chooses. “Academic major impacts a students experience, and we deal with it very little as a profession,” said Chatman. He named a variety of studies that reinforce the idea that there is no such thing as one undergraduate education but many experiences which are filtered through a student’s choice of study. Chatman suggested that these findings should be considered when discussing to what extent SAT scores or high school GPAs predict academic success. Chatman is project Director, Student Experience in the Research University, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley
Bruce Walker, vice provost and director of admissions at the University of Texas, gave one of the most interesting and impassioned presentations of the conference. He described Texas’ “top 10 percent solution,” adopted 10 years ago. That guarantees admission to every in-state student in the top 10 percent of their high school class to any school in the University of Texas system. What he called a “grand experiment” is a great example of what this conference is about. Texas took a bold step and is an example of redoing admissions within the culture of a big university. Now after 10 years, they have great evidence to support that change.
Walker said that has brought a lot of students into Texas colleges who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance, he said. He showed a number of great slides that showed statistics of how well those students have succeeded. “Students in low-performing high schools, if given a chance, can succeed in a major college, even when social structures work against them,” he said. But most colleges spend their time and money recruiting students at the top end of the income scale, he said. “What would happen if they spent all that time and money recruiting low-income students?”
The probability of students enrolling in college increases as their family income increase, he noted. “It’s easy to recruit those students,” he noted. “Down at the bottom, there’s very little family social capital, so institutions have to make up for that. It takes more energy and assets to lift the poor to college… You can create an economic engine to change that family’s future forever. You begin to deliver social capital to people who never had it before.”