Moving On Up

As higher education becomes more competitive, many schools are focusing on non-education-related statistics that will build fame, wealth, and exclusivity.

Higher education is one of the biggest investments that many young Americans will ever make. Yet, unlike a car or house that can be test-driven or inspected prior to purchase, few college-goers really know much about the quality of education a school provides before they enroll.

Ranking systems often devalue actual in-classroom education or reduce complex, qualitative variables to statistics. Still, the college landscape is becoming increasingly fueled by a need for fame, wealth, and exclusivity, and students and their parents are becoming more and more confused about just what schools fit their potential, their goals, and their pocketbooks.

Representatives from across the rankings debate joined Center for American Progress Director of Education Policy Cynthia Brown on Tuesday to discuss whether the ranking systems are flawed and what changes are necessary to level the collegiate playing field. Included in the debate were Kevin Carey, Research and Policy Manager of Education Sector, an education think-tank; Paul Glastris, Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Monthly; and Kenneth Terrell, Assistant Managing Editor of Education at U.S. News and World Report, which recently released its America’s Best Colleges 2008 issue.

Colleges and universities today care more about increasing their rankings on national surveys, such as the annual News and World Report list, than improving their quality of education, said Glastris. To build those rankings, administrators work too hard to keep more students out (raising their selectivity scores), build more phone banks to call alumni for donations (raising their alumni giving scores), and develop better sports teams (raising their name recognition).

While these changes might help the school move up the rankings ladder, they don’t necessarily have much of an effect on the actual education and preparation going on in the classroom. "You can get a great education at a no-name school or a mediocre education at a well-known school," Glastris said.

Glastris’s publication, The Washington Monthly, produces its own set of rankings based in part on higher education’s commitment to serving the public interest, a concept ensconced in the publication’s non-profit tax-exempt status. The Washington Monthly‘s rubric incorporates such criteria as how many doctorates a school produces, how many low-income students it attracts and graduates, and how many of its alumni go on to careers or post-graduate programs in public service, such as the Peace Corps.

Still, the problem runs deeper than which statistics appear on the final ranking, Terrell said. His publication’s widely known list compiles data from 1400 schools using as much information as is available. Much of the information on educational quality, such as the results of independently administered studies like the National Survey of Student Engagement, remains locked in file cabinets on college and university campuses and can’t be published or compared without the school’s consent.

"This is the best system that we can put together and we believe this is the best system that is out there," Terrell said, despite the lack of educational quality data.

A commission appointed by President Bush pushed for more transparency and disclosure in school information last year, said Glastris. There may also be a push for greater disclosure as smaller, lesser-known schools begin publishing their survey results as a way to market themselves to students and counteract ranking systems that favor big, well-endowed institutions, said Carey of Education Sector.

Changing the way America views higher education is a priority for all advocates of educational reform, especially for low-income and minority communities, said CAP’s Brown. Students who can’t attend selective, highly-ranked schools due to finances or educational gaps face an inherent stumbling block even after college, as employers increasingly use name recognition and rankings as the sole or determining factor in gauging an applicant’s intellectual quality.

"It is imperative to our democracy to break the phony ranking system," said Glastris. "Nothing would be more democratizing than that."

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