The college rankings controversy

Michelle Heiman

Top rankings lists can be enticing, especially for topics that might be overwhelming to research, such as which colleges are the best in the nation.

U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and The Daily Beast, Forbes and The Princeton Review are just a few of the publications that utilize college rankings. But what are these rankings lists really expressing about colleges?

“The rankings are pretty reliable statistics of such indicators as colleges’ financial resources, course sizes and admissions selectivity,” said Dr. Nathan Lindsay, assistant vice provost for assessment. “The rankings are not very reliable indicators of educational quality and learning.”

The U.S. News “Best Colleges” rankings are based on freshman retention, graduation rates and faculty “strength,” according to a September U.S. News article. The “formula” involves academic quality indicators, as determined by education experts on U.S. News staff, and on their views of what matters in education.

Newsweek and The Daily Beast assessed factors such as affordability, rigor of coursework, campus aesthetics, student morale, stress levels and rowdiness to compile their 10 lists of top-25 schools. UMKC did not make any of these lists.

Forbes Magazine rankings, compiled by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, focus on quality of teaching, career prospects, graduation rates and graduation debt levels. These “Top Colleges,” calculated in July 2012, placed UMKC at 572 out of 650 schools.

The Princeton Review uses student surveys to compile its data for 62 categories worth of top-20 schools. The surveys contain four sections and have over 80 questions. While 38 categories are the positive “Best Athletic Facilities” and “Best Career Services” type, the other 24 are negative aspects like “Is It Food?” and “Least Happy Students.” UMKC did not rank in any of these lists.

The Wall Street Journal lists the top 25 schools whose graduates were top-rated by recruiters. UMKC did not make this list.

The Washington Monthly ranks colleges in four categories – Baccalaureate Colleges, Master’s Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges and National Universities.

Schools are rated based on their contributions to the “public good” in three categories: Social Mobility, Research and Service. UMKC ranked 229 of 281 in the National Universities category, with an overall score of 33. The bottom-ranked and top-ranked schools had overall scores between 0 and 100, respectively.

College Prowler has by far the most comprehensive list of categories, each of which has its own criteria. UMKC received an “A- ” in the “Local Atmosphere” category, which incorporates the safety of the surrounding area, nearby attractions, proximity to other schools and the town’s attitude toward students.

However, UMKC received a “C” grade in multiple categories as well, and was not numerically ranked superior in any category.

Lindsay said he would like to see rankings based on opportunities for service learning, study abroad, undergraduate research and internships.

“Rankings are about prestige and reputation, and the schools that are at the top don’t want to see any changes in how the rankings are calculated,” he said. “In addition, parents and students probably wouldn’t believe rankings that didn’t put Ivy League schools at the top, even if they were based on more valid measures of quality.”

Dr. Larry Bunce, director of Institutional Research, said senior leadership at UMKC pays attention to various ranking systems, such as U.S. News.

“The information from various rankings are put together for UMKC and several of our peer institutions and then shared with the senior leadership on campus,” he said. “This enables the senior leadership to discuss the various data elements and to identify potential areas to study in further depth, and if necessary, to develop action plans to facilitate improvement.”

Bunce said UMKC focuses on improving within the individual metrics in order to benefit students.

“We may explore ways to help students become more successful at UMKC and ultimately graduate from the university, but this is done for the students, not to increase our ranking in U.S. News or another type of ranking,” he said.

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