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The Scarlet & Black

Investigating college rankings

Although+college+ratings+are+not+objective%2C+admissions+recognizes+their+influence+over+students+college+decisions.+Photo+by+Ellen+Schoenmaker%0A
Although college ratings are not objective, admissions recognizes their influence over students’ college decisions. Photo by Ellen Schoenmaker

By Philip Kiely
kielyphi@grinnell.edu

The United States Department of Education recently released its inaugural update to the College Scorecard. Unlike the U.S. News & World Report and similar college rankings, the College Scorecard provides only raw data and statistics and does not impose a definitive ranking. This data includes annual average cost, graduation rate and salary after graduation.

“One of the advantages that I see to the Scorecard is that instead of imposing somebody else’s methodology, it does at least attempt to get you engaged in the process to think about the differences between the institutions,” said Joe Bagnoli,Vice President of Enrollment.

U.S. News & World Report also released its 2017 Best Colleges Rankings on Sept. 13. The report weighs a variety of factors to rank colleges and universities within several categories. Grinnell was ranked at 19 in national liberal arts colleges, tied with West Point.

“If you unpack U.S. News & World Report, you will find a number of interesting metrics associated with their methodology,” Bagnoli said.

The most recent set of US News & World Report rankings were based on seven weighted metrics: graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent), undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent), faculty resources (20 percent), student selectivity (12.5 percent), financial resources (10 percent), graduation rate performance (7.5 percent) and alumni giving (5 percent).

“College rankings approach ‘quality’ with a narrow scope of quantitative metrics, a large portion of which measure external factors not directly related to the academic quality,” wrote Tariq Habash, a policy associate focusing on higher education at The Century Foundation, in an email to The S&B.

This quantitative data does not always line up with educational quality.

“People go to Stanford because Stanford has a good reputation. You don’t get a better education at Stanford as an undergraduate in economics, probably, than you get in Grinnell,” said Professor Mark Montgomery, Economics.

The problem of narrow criteria in college rankings is compounded by the self-reinforcing nature of the rankings.

“The selectivity is a major factor in reputation, and reputation is a major factor in selectivity. So it’s a self-reinforcing system. That’s why the rankings matter so much,” Montgomery said.

Other rankings systems use different criteria to evaluate the value of colleges.

“I for one have come to appreciate rankings like the Washington Monthly because it attempts to value something different than what U.S. News [and World Report] values,” Bagnoli said. Washington Monthly’s annual ranking evaluates schools based on their contribution to the public good in social mobility, research and service. Grinnell also ranks 19 in Washington Monthly’s 2016 College Guide.

All rankings are based on what the creator believes to be most valuable and are therefore difficult to consider objectively. The College Scorecard, on the other hand, provides the information that rankings use but individually rather than in rank order.

“The College Scorecard is not a ranking system. It is a database that provides important information to consumers who are looking for the best institutional fit,” Habash wrote.

Nonetheless, the College Scorecard is not a perfect database. The College Scorecard only shows data gathered from financial aid recipients and median debt statistics exclude private loans, suggesting that debt levels are lower than they are. Additionally, the salary information includes numbers for students who attended but did not graduate, which downplays the value added by the school on salaries.

“The emphasis on salaries is problematic because there is a need for students who will work in public service areas and this is one of those rankings that … seems not to place much value at that,” Bagnoli said.

Rankings can also influence salaries for graduates, perpetuating the self-reinforcing nature of college rankings.

Although college ratings are not objective, admissions recognizes their influence over students' college decisions. Photo by Ellen Schoenmaker
Although college ratings are not objective, admissions recognizes their influence over students’ college decisions. Photo by Ellen Schoenmaker

“To say that employers do not look at rankings as a measure of institutional prestige would be misleading,” Habash wrote.

Recruiters target certain schools based on their reputation, giving additional incentive for students to matriculate at high-ranking institutions and allowing the schools to be even more selective.

“A lot of education doesn’t necessarily enhance everybody’s productivity and give them higher wages because they learned so much in school. It gives them higher wages because it signals the employer that they’re a strong candidate,” Montgomery said.

Ultimately, rankings still play a role in both decisions of prospective students and opportunities for graduates, but both Habash and Bagnoli note that it is important for students to think about the rankings at a deeper level.

“It’s up to the student … to think about a more appropriate methodology for the individual student and weigh variables differently,” Bagnoli said.

“People want to pretend they don’t matter,” Montgomery said. “But because the students think they matter … that turns out to be true.”

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