Gaming the Rankings? Not on Our Campus!

The punching bag of college admissions keeps taking hits. According to survey results released Thursday by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, a majority of admissions professionals believe that U.S. News & World Report‘s annual ranking of colleges relies on flawed methodology, bears an inaccurate title (“Best Colleges”), and confuses students and parents.</p>

<p>Although such findings aren’t surprising, the survey reveals the complexity of the rankings debate. Most respondents (87 percent) “agree” or “somewhat agree” that the rankings “encourage counterproductive behavior” among colleges, yet a majority of admissions officers say they tout their institution’s ranking in marketing campaigns, at least “in a limited fashion.” Curiously, 56 percent of admissions officers agree or somewhat agree that rankings help them recruit students, while 44 percent disagree or somewhat disagree.</p>

<p>One intriguing finding: More than 90 percent of admissions officers say that college rankings encourage colleges to embrace competitive strategies for maintaining or improving their spot, yet only 46 percent say that rankings drive decisions at their own colleges. ”Respondents’ beliefs that institutions are ‘gaming’ the rankings generally seems to apply to other colleges,” the report says, “whereas they are less likely to perceive their own institution as manipulating the process.”</p>

<p>In other words, the belief that there’s a monster out there is twice as prevalent as the belief that a monster lurks beneath one’s own bed. Perhaps that finding is more revealing of human nature than of the rankings and their effects.</p>

<p>Robert J. Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, says he welcomes the survey’s findings, barbs and all. As he’s often noted, opinions of the rankings are one thing; actions are another. ”Colleges are saying, ‘We don’t like the rankings, but we’re going to use them as a means to validate our quality and to attract students,’” he says.</p>

<p>The survey was conducted to inform the work of a NACAC committee whose members meet occasionally with U.S. News officials to discuss the rankings and their impact on higher education. David A. Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research, describes the survey as an attempt to distinguish between “what’s real and what’s perceived.” Do college officials underestimate the power of rankings, or do high school counselors overstate them? Or both?</p>

<p>Mr. Hawkins hopes that the survey’s findings will bring more clarity to the rankings debate, even if they don’t prompt U.S. News to make any changes to its guide. “If they are receptive, that would be great,” he says, “but I don’t know that I’m holding my breath.”</p>

<p>Surely, that’s wise. After all, a majority the survey’s respondents may believe that “Best Colleges” is an inaccurate representation of the rankings, but some things are here to stay. “We’re not going to change the name of our product,” Mr. Morse says.


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