From The Claremont Independent's November 2009 issue. The Claremont Independent has always warned about the dangers of following the U.S. News & World Report rankings that were Gann's gospel. We were right; she was wrong--and now she's got to go.
Section: Campus News
Headline: Gaming the System
Subheadline: Why we need frank dialogue about CMC's approach to the U.S. News and World Report rankings
Author: Helen Highberger
Each year, the grinding wheel of U.S. News and World Report once again squeezes out a shiny sausage of college rankings. This article aims to show that, as the old saying goes, you wouldn't like to see this sausage being made - but most people gobble it up without question. Prospective students, parents, college administrators, and to some extent the general public meets these rankings with the utmost seriousness, even frenzy. Websites like CollegeConfidential.com overflow with panicked high school students, measuring their worth through the Procrustean lens of SAT scores, and judging the colleges to which they apply no less numerically. Colleges put a great deal of maneuvering into the process, adjusting class sizes, admissions procedures, and allocation of financial resources in hopes of boosting their rank for the next year. Have you ever assumed something based on U.S. News's rankings? What are they even based on? Let's read the ingredients on this package of sausages and see what they're really made of.
I asked Dean of Faculty Gregory Hess what factors contribute most to maintaining Claremont McKenna's good ranking (up to 11 this year). The first thing he mentioned was our low faculty-to-student ratio, 8.5 students to 1 faculty member. He explained that this gives Claremont McKenna an average class size of 16. In U.S. News terms, these numbers are part of a college's "faculty resource rank." Three other factors that help us in the rankings, he said, are CMC's graduation rate, its place in the Claremont consortium and the added resources from that connection, and CMC's selectivity rate.
This all sounds very reasonable, but there are many other factors that go into the sausage-making of U.S. News's rankings. For example, the weightiest of U.S. News's six factors is a "peer assessment" sent to academic officials, asking them to rate the programs at other colleges. It is revealing that U.S. News values the opinions of academics at rival colleges over the opinions of, say, people who have actually attended the college, given that their rankings are intended for prospective students, not prospective academics.
How about the faculty resource rank mentioned above? Not what it seems. The faculty-to-student ratio, a common and relevant benchmark, makes up only 5% of the faculty resource score. The largest single contributor to the faculty resource rank is faculty pay. Another interesting choice, since becoming a liberal arts faculty member at all is not a salary-maximizing move in the first place. I've always heard faculty members classify pay as a minus, rather than a plus, of their career of choice, suggesting that faculty do not choose their positions primarily by this factor.
While most schools would like to have other academics think well of them, and strive to compensate their faculty well, the student selectivity rank, as it affects college policy, has the potential to change a college's very motivation. 90% of this score is determined by entering students' SAT I or ACT scores and whether they graduated in the top 10% of their high school class. This is dangerous, especially for a specialized, elite school like CMC, tempting admissions officers to overlook leadership experience and other intangibles in favor of admitting students with good standardized test scores.
The problem, as I see it, is that U.S. News's rankings seem more calculated to the prestige of the college than the quality of education a student can receive there. I have attended three colleges - Princeton, Harvey Mudd, and Claremont McKenna - and if I were to rank their quality of education in my chosen major, my ranks would be the opposite of U.S. News's. If I were hiring a graduate of one of these colleges, my assessment of the value of their degree would be so different than U.S. News's that I cannot help considering their rankings as positively worse than no rankings at all.
The craven respect paid to the colleges ranked highly by U.S. News is worse than useless. Every level of education, from prospective college students to employers, is polluted by the gross misconceptions inherent in these rankings. To turn down a highly-ranked college for a lower-ranked one is regarded as some mixture of stupidity and insanity. Yet the real-world experience at the various colleges is enough to cause serious cognitive dissonance in a world so dominated by these rankings. Princeton students are no more interested in the life of the mind than Claremont McKenna students. Harvey Mudd students generally blow those of both other colleges out of the water in terms of intelligence and work ethic. Yet Princeton is ranked #1 in its class and Harvey Mudd is ranked #14 in its.
What is the sensible thing to do in the face of such a nonsensical attempt at a value judgment? U.S. News's rankings are not going away anytime soon, and they're not going to stop affecting how some people think about college. Still, we can choose not to give credence to these rankings.
The Claremont McKenna administration does not admit to being affected by U.S. News's rankings, and school officials including Registrar Elizabeth Morgan refused to speak to the CI about the issue. Yet the facts speak for themselves. Few students can help but notice the strangely artificial 19-person cap imposed on Fall semester class sizes, the term during which rankings are calculated. Unless the College has developed a fetish for prime numbers or a superstitious case of vigintiphobia, the only plausible explanation is that it is gaming the U.S. News rankings, which specifically take into account the percentage of class sections with 19 students or fewer. As a college, we must have open dialogue between students, faculty and administration about the effects of the rankings and how they shape academic policy and CMC's educational experience. We may not be able to shut down the sausage factory, but we can stop eating the sausage - at least it starts to include some real meat.