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Raters of the Liberal Arts

written in June, 2014

Pick Your Poison

When it comes to colleges, you can find a rating system to tell you pretty much whatever you want to hear. Take, for example, Muhlenberg College where I serve as President. Kiplinger’s has consistently rated it one of the “best values” in higher education. A Huffington Post list rated it as one of the country’s “costliest colleges.” AffordableCollegesonline.com named it a top 15 college for return on investment in Pennsylvania. U.S. News rated Muhlenberg as the best liberal arts college in the country for veterans, and a list released by the Education Trust rated it one of the “worst” colleges for providing lower income students with access to higher education (along with Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Carleton, Middlebury, Franklin & Marshall, Stanford, Pomona, and a host of other excellent institutions), despite the fact that 25% of its annual budget is devoted to institutional grant aid. You can also find rankings that say Muhlenberg is “hot”, “cool”, one of the best colleges for shy students, or (my favorite) that I’m a “Nerdscholar Favorite President.” There are rankings for top party schools, the Colleges most obsessed with squirrels, worst food, richest professors, healthiest, sexiest , geekiest, most adulterous alumni, and many, many more. There are even rankings of the best rankings!

I have a low opinion of College ratings. Most of them are silly. Many are worse than useless. Yes, they can have an impact on admissions applications. A study of the Princeton Review ratings demonstrated an increase of 2-3% for colleges ranked as having the “happiest students” or “most beautiful campus” and a decline of 5% or more for schools with “the least happy students” or the “least attractive campus.” The U.S. News rankings certainly provide “winners” with marketing clout, but provide no really helpful information to help families choose the right school for their kids. U.S. News claims to measure many criteria but its rankings, in fact, correlate almost perfectly with endowment size and institutional wealth.

Teaching to the Test

The most deplorable effect of rankings is not misleading families of prospective students, but in distorting the behavior and priorities of institutions that should know better. It’s bad enough that officials at some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions have misrepresented admissions statistics to improve their U.S. News rankings, but other institutions have artificially boosted application numbers to achieve the appearance of greater selectivity, tinkered with class sizes, and mounted expensive public relations campaigns to optimize their ratings. Some of this is dishonest, some of it is merely “teaching to the test.” Most of it represents a diversion of time, effort, and resources from what should be colleges’ highest priority: providing students with the best possible education.

But what does “best possible education” mean? It depends, of course, on the individual student, his or her talents and potential, and what s/he finds interesting and wants to accomplish in life. Which is why the immense variety of higher education options in our country is so valuable – and its preservation so important.

Students Aren’t Smoothies

U.S. News and its copycats have been around for years. So, why my rant about ratings now? Here’s why: last year President Obama announced a federal ratings system for colleges and universities, based on standard criteria that define what the federal government thinks higher education should be doing. And he wants those ratings to determine eligibility for federal student aid. According to a White House press release (8/23/13), ratings criteria should include:

  • Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;

  • Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and

  • Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.

And despite a brief reference to “comparing colleges with similar missions,” the process has been more recently and succinctly described by the official in charge of developing the system this way:

“It’s like rating a blender. This is not so hard to get your mind around.”[1]

Access, affordability, and outcomes are important goals for most colleges and universities. But our institutions are different – sometimes subtly and sometimes fundamentally. Those differences are what make one institution ideal for some students, while others will thrive elsewhere. This range and variety are what make our country’s higher education system the best in the world.

If You Can’t Measure It You Can’t Manage It

I believe in measurement as a management tool. I also believe there are important things you can’t measure: the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s plays, the compositions of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, the happiness of a marriage, the value of a life, and many, many more.

Affordability: average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt are also important considerations – but the variables confound the utility of a one-size-fits-all approach. Some institutions have greater endowments per student than others, allowing richer aid packages that don’t include loans and work-study grants; others receive substantial public subsidies allowing them to charge lower tuition; some save costs by compromising on the quality of the classroom experience, the extent of student services, or the range of academic programs.

Outcomes: graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates are also valid measures – but much trickier than evaluating a blender. Many elite institutions take pride in their very high graduation rates. Other institutions specialize in high-risk students, and their missions are important too, even if their graduation rates are not as impressive. Of course, any institution could improve graduate rates simply by lowering academic standards, if that’s what the federal government wants to incentivize.

Earnings are an even trickier measure. The website Payscale.com is a simple way of comparing data on graduates’ financial success, but its averages exclude salaries of alumni who have earned graduate and professional degrees (MBAs, MDs, JDs, etc.). Furthermore, any “graduate earnings” criterion penalizes institutions that educate teachers, journalists, museum curators, family therapists, artists, clergy, and homemakers in comparison to engineering and technical schools – especially if based on starting salaries. Every legitimate study has demonstrated an impressive economic return on both baccalaureate and advanced degrees, but many of us find the notion that education is all about the money deeply offensive. Education is about making a good life as well as making a good living. It would be a shame if a federal ratings system ignored that immeasurable truth.

Right Under Their Noses

"We need much greater transparency for the public. … We have to get them better information. You want to see the good actors be rewarded. You want to see them get more resources." - Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.[2]

Well, apparently Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing, because George W. Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, said almost exactly the same thing in 2006. Unfortunately, they haven’t done their homework. As education writer Scott Jaschik pointed out at the time,[3] most of the information they talk about is readily available – on the Department of Education’s own website (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/), or on the voluntary website called “UCan” that several hundred private institutions established years ago (http://www.ucan-network.org). The one piece of information institutions can’t provide – graduates’ earnings – isn’t available to them, isn’t any of their business, and is already available to the federal government anyway (think I.R.S.).

Will the ready availability of all this information (a “datapalooza” in Arne Duncan’s phrase) simplify the challenge of picking the right college for a particular student simple? Sorry, no. It’s still going to be a complicated task. Not because institutions are concealing relevant facts, but because every student is different, with different interests, ambitions, abilities, and needs, and because most families don’t have extensive experience in researching their options. Choosing the right college is like a combination of choosing the right spouse and buying a house. It’s not at all like choosing a blender.