Rankings: A convenient but worthless shortcut to measure educational efficacy

Emily McCarren

September 20, 2017

Maria Furtado, the Executive Director of Colleges that Change Lives Consortium, led another inspiring session I went to at NACAC 2017. This nonprofit organization represents 44 small liberal arts colleges that are not highly selective, but, as it sounds, are wonderful places to grow and learn.

Everyone at the conference shared a rancor for the US News & World Report college rankings for how they limit some students' sense of which schools will be a good fit for them. Maria's strategies for talking students and families out of seeing the rankings as important were excellent.

First, she acknowledged the fact that in our busy culture, rankings can be a very tempting shortcut for understanding. The college admission process is vastly complex and it is tempting to look for quick and easy answers. It makes sense that we would like a list to help us make sense of this complex landscape.

However, to put the rankings into important perspective, she put up a list of some of the top factors that determine the ranking:

  • Peer assessment
  • Faculty resources
  • Selectivity
  • Test scores of enrolled freshmen

She then encouraged us to share these factors with families and ask: Are these values important to you?

Assuming the answers will be mostly no, then why would you use this list to choose a college? She presented some really interesting data such as which colleges produce the most Fulbright Scholarships or Advanced degrees in different fields. In many of these lists, small colleges have a large presence.

She asked us to consider measuring the success of a hospital by asking how healthy people are when they arrive in the ER? That would be nuts! Of course hospitals should be evaluated on the extent to which they are able to improve the conditions of the people who come through the doors. What if the success of colleges were more regularly evaluated on how much students grew or achieved during and beyond college instead of by how well their freshman class did in high school?

Because this isn't the case, colleges are pressured to admit students with high test scores because a failed magazine (USN&WR doesn't even print magazines anymore) decides to use it as a benchmark to measure educational quality. As in many areas of education, just because something is easy to measure doesn't mean it matters much at all

Another insight that Maria shared was how to address the dismissal of smaller liberal arts colleges as too small and not having enough opportunity. Regarding opportunity: in all of these smaller communities, undergraduates are working directly with talented faculty on a myriad of exciting projects and initiatives; students at these schools simply do not lack opportunities.

Regarding size, she also reflected: "How many friends do you need? In a school of 1,500 or 15,000, you are not going to know everyone." And, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, she added, "And, last time you went to the movies, how many friends did you go with?" This resonated with me. I went to a college about the same size as the Punahou Academy and I didn't even know everyone in my graduating class, and never felt short on opportunity or people to be with.

The really important point that Maria made was that there is nothing wrong with the schools that end up high on the rankings, but rather, there isn't really anything of significance that makes them better for students than many schools that are further down the list. This ability to move away from the sense that there are only 5, 10 or even 50 "possible schools" for our kids is critical in our quest to care for them. I was very grateful to Maria for the data, insights and tactics to support this important work.

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