The rest of us don't have the luxury of abandoning the rankings because they allow us to communicate things about our campuses which are otherwise hidden to prospective students and their families. So while some schools can ignore or cater to rankings as it pleases them, we need to figure out how to get college rankings right.
Three suggestions on moving beyond quixotic campaigns against USNWR:
- Provide the data that parents want in a clear, comparable fashion. When I talk to parents at recruiting events they always ask about these things: retention rates, graduation rates, the percentage of students who go on to graduate school, the medical school acceptance rate, and the average student loan debt upon graduation. These points of data should be at the fingertips of all admissions staffers at every institution, and the organizations that oversee higher education accountability should make them easily accessible on key websites.
- Be transparent with the important data that colleges usually hide. Schools create and consume huge amounts of assessment data which is standardized across campuses but rarely shared publicly. College presidents should have the courage to post their NSSE results, their CLA results, and their accreditation self-studies on their websites. And NSSE, CLA, and the regional accreditors need to find better ways of using the data the request and gather to encourage campuses to publicly show evidence of improvement over time. (I've made this point before at greater length here).
- Focus on outcomes. While USNWR rankings are regularly criticized for being input focused, and some of the other major rankings--Princeton Review, for example--are criticized for ranking students on things that hardly matter for learning, there are rankings that pay attention to the outcomes of college educations. The best in my view are the rankings in the Washington Monthly annual college guide. There the inputs drop away and what is left is evidence of a school's ability to increase the likelihood of graduation, and its influence on the public minded-ness of its graduates. If I were a college president, I would want the institution I served to do everything it could to climb in those rankings, because they represent the sorts of things that students, parents, and civil society ought to care about in higher education.