College presidents plan ‘U.S. News’ rankings boycott

An article on the Christian Science Monitor indicates that College presidents plan to boycott the U.S. News and World Report ranking surveys.

This pisses me off.

At the heart of the matter: A college degree is increasingly expensive, and students and parents want to make informed decisions. But educators worry that the rankings have made college a commodity, creating a false impression that schools can be easily compared and stressing out students who want only the “best” schools.

“This increasing interest in measuring everything – these so-called science-based measures of [educational] outcomes and the like – seems to me to be so misguided that it’s now captured the imagination of the leadership in higher education,” says Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., who heads an association of 124 prestigious liberal arts schools. “This is a bad way of talking about an education. [Students] aren’t consumers shopping for a product.”

No — no, students are exactly consumers shopping for a product. They’re shopping for knowledge, experience, and a degree so they can get a job or do something that will allow them to follow their dreams (whatever those dreams are) after they graduate.

Granted, everyone has a different reason to go to college, whether it’s to receive training and education in a field where they want to work, to expand their horizons, or because Mom and Dad said they had to or they had to go get jobs, and hey, there’s beer at college. And everyone has their own criteria for a good college. So we’re already talking about a crowd of young adults, strung out from the pressure of their junior and senior years, not 100% sure what they want to do with their lives, being asked to spend thousands and thousands of dollars — more than most of them have ever seen, more than they’ll take home for the first three to five (maybe more) years in the working world) on a nebulous product called “an education”.

But if you read college admissions marketing material, it’s all the same crap — “diverse”, “high academic standards”, “safe campus”, “small class sizes”, “personal attention”…. and when the campus isn’t safe, you don’t see “Free pepper spray for all students” in the admissions booklet.

You absolutely cannot get a realistic picture of what a college is like based solely on its admissions marketing.

So what sources for information are left to you? Most college students I know made their decision on schools based on one of the following:

  • It’s local. (Conversely: it’s nowhere near my parents.)
  • It’s got a good program for what I’m interested in studying, according to (circle one): my teachers / my friends / my parents / my parents’ friends / the guy at the deli
  • I can afford it. (Conversely: they’ve offered me a bucket of scholarships.)
  • It’s got the (circle one) student/teacher ratio / boy/girl ratio / minority/white ratio / geek/norm ratio I’m looking for, according to (circle one): my teachers / my friends / my parents / my parents’ friends / the guy at the deli
  • My friends / siblings / significant other is/isn’t attending.

And is that really everything we should be using to pick a school? I don’t think so. I think there should be somewhere that students can get an even partially-objective look at what’s available in the country. What if the perfect school for you happens to be in Montana, and you’re not? Would you even know about it without a report like the US News & World Report?

Don’t be fooled. University presidents don’t want to give you quantifiable information on their schools because they want you to talk to your friends and your parents, look at the pretty pictures in the booklet, and say, “well, what the hell, it can’t be that bad, and I can always transfer”. They know that once you’re at a school it’s expensive to transfer, so you’ll probably make do, and that means money.

If the country’s colleges and universities object to the methods by which the US News survey is ranked, I challenge them to step up as a community and provide their own searching and ranking statistics, where a student (read:customer) can go online, enter in the parameters that she finds important (within 200 miles of home, recognized science program, faculty/student ration of about 1:20, good financial aid, etc.) and get back a list of potential schools. This is called the “put up or shut up” approach. It’s how the bursar’s office always appears to work. Universities should be challenged to do the same.