Many colleges reject rankings out of hand, insisting that education is too ineffable for metrics. We disagree. Students and parents need clear, comparable measures in order to make smart choices, particularly given how expensive college has become. Colleges that don’t want to be compared to their peers are just trying to avoid public scrutiny. While colleges do have a point when they complain about U.S. News’s ratings, the problem isn’t that U.S. News ranks colleges, but that it does so based on the wrong factors—like wealth, fame, and selectivity—that incentivize college administrators in the wrong ways. A college president vying for rankings glory on our list, by contrast, would have to enroll more low-income students, help them earn degrees, orient academic programs toward service, and invest in new scientific research. The country needs more of that kind of competition, not less.
Rankings are only as good as the data on which they’re based. We’ve long noted the potential to use college-level information from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a comprehensive survey of best educational practices that was originally envisioned as a counterweight to U.S. News. The problem is that most colleges won’t allow NSSE to release their results to the public. (Community colleges are not so reluctant, and have made their own similar student engagement survey data available for the world to see.) To their credit, a number of four-year public universities have banded together to voluntarily release selected NSSE results on a Web site called College Portraits (www.collegeportraits.org). There, some also publish data from the well-regarded Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test of higher-order thinking and communications skills, and graduation rates that offer more detail than standard federal measures. Meanwhile, Congress has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years into state-level information systems that will eventually yield data about how college graduates fare in the job market and graduate education.
Overall, however, colleges are still highly skittish about rankings. Prospective students can’t use College Portraits to compare data from different schools, for instance. In fact, the site’s official slogan is “No rankings, no spin just the facts!” But rankings aren’t “spin.” Spin is what colleges do when they mail out glossy brochures that put themselves in the best possible light. Rankings, at their best, are the antidote to spin. Rankings are just the facts presented in the most logical and useful manner possible, facts that serve the broad interests of society instead of the narrow concerns of colleges themselves.
Thanks to the economic crisis, a lot of colleges are in dire financial straights these days. But the right kind of rankings could be a boon to many of these schools. The best thing about showing what you do for the country is that it gives the country more reasons to do something for you in return. The nation is badly in need of cutting-edge research, wise and knowledgeable citizens and workers, and a renewed focus on service. Our top-ranked colleges are poised to deliver.
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