The No. 1 reason to rank colleges

MICHAEL SKUBE, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in criticism, teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina.

SUMMER IS THE TIME when many colleges and universities are in relative hibernation. But on many campuses across the country, senior administrators will be meeting to discuss a matter that gets more sensitive by the year: U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of American colleges and universities, published each year in August.

Presidents and provosts at many schools — among them, Barnard, Sarah Lawrence and Kenyon — are chafing at the magazine’s rankings and their role in the decisions that parents and high school students make. More than chafe, they are calling on their peers to no longer fill out the long questionnaire sent them each year by U.S. News.

“Frankly, it had bubbled up to the point of, why should we do this work for them?” Barnard President Judith P. Shapiro told the New York Times. “It is a way of saying, this is not our project.”

Another academic leader, Sarah Lawrence President Michele Tolela Myers, wrote in the Washington Post in March that U.S. News had foisted on higher education the superficiality of a media culture. “U.S. News benefits from our appetite for shortcuts, sound-bites and top 10 lists,” she wrote. “The magazine has parlayed the appearance of unbiased measurements into a profitable bottom line.”

True enough. But it is also partly beside the point. Colleges and universities long ago entered the marketing game, and a necessary part of that game is attracting consumers. The inevitable consequence, with colleges as much as with anything else, is the emergence of guidebooks, information clearinghouses and self-appointed arbiters. U.S. News’ survey, for all its imperfections, performs the useful service of comparing apples with academic apples. In some ways, one might even argue that its nuts-and-bolts consumer information is at least as practical as the bar charts and numbers a car buyer might find in Consumer Reports or Car and Driver.

What factors go into the rankings? Student retention accounts for 25% at schools U.S. News calls master’s level and those that provide primarily the bachelor’s degree (called “comprehensive” schools, oddly enough). At liberal arts schools such as Pomona College or Williams College and at “national” universities such as Stanford or UC Berkeley, student retention accounts for 20%.

At all schools, regardless of category, “faculty resources” (class size, faculty salaries, student/faculty ratio, among other things) constitute another 20%. Throw in “student selectivity” and you have an additional 15%. Financial resources (student aid) contributes 10%, and the percentage of alumni donating to the school accounts for 5%. At national and top-tier liberal arts schools, a further 5% is determined by the percentage of students who are expected to graduate.

This is utilitarian stuff — mind-numbingly dull, not always revelatory, but usually worth knowing. The magazine calls these data points, and they don’t change significantly from one year to the next.

What does change — and this is what makes the rankings controversial — is “peer assessment.” U.S. News asks each university’s three top academic administrators — usually the president, the provost and the vice president for academic affairs — to rate other schools. Those ratings account for 25% of a school’s rank, and they might be as subjective as a sportswriter’s ranking of top 10 college football teams — some of which he’s never seen play.

This is what many presidents of liberal arts colleges object to, and one can see why. Americans no sooner take to something than they start drawing up top 10 lists, from beaches to steakhouses to mutual funds. No one knows better than a sports fan the interest such parlor games churn up — or their unreliability. The presidents are right to complain that such ratings focus on who’s up and who’s down, not on what a college might offer.

Sometimes just the facts will do, and the U.S. News manual offers them in great heaps. When it comes to college admission, what could be more revealing than those factors on which a school places the highest premium, those it considers important but not paramount and those it merely takes into consideration — or doesn’t consider at all? Sarah Lawrence, for example, does not take into consideration SAT or ACT scores. Don’t even send ‘em, it tells high school students.

That tells me all I need to know about Sarah Lawrence. It tells me that Sarah Lawrence doesn’t take aptitude as seriously as I’d like. The university depends far more on high school grades, which, as anyone who has taught at the college level knows, cannot be trusted. If last year’s freshman classes at several colleges all had composite high school grade point averages of 3.6 to 3.8, I don’t know how the intellectual caliber of one differs from another. But if one college attracted high school students whose SATs averaged 1100 to 1200, and another attracted students with SATs averaging 1300 to 1400, I know the latter is more selective. Sarah Lawrence might not care about such things, but I do.

A manual such as U.S. News can serve the consumer for other reasons. The number of high school students enrolling in college continues to rise, but the supply of colleges remains constant. Many who would have attended Stanford or one of the Ivies two generations ago now must look to fallback schools — Duke, perhaps, or Vanderbilt. Or the better state schools, such as Michigan, UC Berkeley or UCLA.

At the same time, schools that were all but unknown 10 years ago suddenly are on the radar screens of high school students many latitudes away. My own university is an example. In 1996, Elon University ranked 39th among master’s degree-granting Southern colleges in U.S. News’ survey; last year, it ranked third, a meteoric rise by any measure.

Elon’s climb up the U.S. News ladder has been accompanied by a rise in the academic profile of its students. The class that entered in 1995, for example, had an average SAT score of 1058 — 45 points higher than the national average — and a composite 3.18 GPA. The class that entered last fall had an average SAT score of 1217, well above the national average of 1028, and a composite GPA of 3.9.

But has Elon attracted better students because of its rising stock, or has it been the other way round? No doubt a mutual reinforcement has taken place, but it would be misleading to call one the cause and the other the effect.

What is almost certain is that few students and their parents choose a college simply because it’s ranked third while another is ranked sixth or 16th. They choose colleges for myriad reasons, from the clearly calculable — tuition, say — to the one that is most important but impossible to quantify: Will the student be happy there?

No annual ranking can answer that, and none should try. College is, after all, a leap into the unknown. And yet there is much that can be known, and needs to be known, before one ever leaves the solid ground of home and familiar surroundings. That, if nothing else, is what a few bare facts can provide.