College ranking needs reform

Increasing numbers of schools are pushing for a change in the current ranking system.

It is again the time of year for a new flock of students to critically peruse the rankings of our nation’s many universities and colleges to determine the institution of their choice. It is also at this very time that more and more colleges are, with good reason, calling upon a reform of the current college ranking system.

U.S. News has been evaluating universities and colleges since 1993 with the largest component of the rankings, 25 percent of a school’s overall score, based on a survey that asks presidents, admissions directors and provosts to assess peer institutions. This reputational ranking seems like a very legitimate tool for obtaining a specific level of knowledge about schools.

However, can one really break down and define a complex institution into a single number? The rankings’ formula overemphasizes selective admissions data such as low acceptance rates and high SAT scores for incoming freshmen while paying little attention to what really matters but is much harder to measure: the education students receive once they get on campus.

Even more alarming is what many critics refer to as “ranksteering,” which occurs when schools specifically tailor administrative decisions to move higher up on the list. The rankings encourage more per-student spending because it makes up 10 percent of a school’s score. This certainly doesn’t help keep tuition down and it punishes schools who attempt to balance their budget rather than keep up with their peers’ spending increases. We are headed in the wrong direction if we are evaluating education in such a manner that institutions are rewarded for building unnecessary material things as much as for investing in what happens in the classroom.

Currently, the heads of a dozen private colleges are waiting to distribute a letter that will ask fellow midsized schools whether they are willing to pull out of the U.S. News survey, stop filling out part of it, stop advertising their ranking or, most importantly, help come up with more relevant data to provide as an alternative. Given the problems attached to the current ranking system, a college- ranking revolt is just what we need.