Monday, August 13, 2007


smf notes:

  1. The US NEWS & WORLD REPORTS college rankings are due this week.
  2. IN THE INTEREST OF FULL DISCLOSURE: the college search is underway at our house, we are making our own lists!

From the uncredited Education News column in the Dallas Morning News

Monday, August 13, 2007 - A few months ago I wrote about a guy named Lloyd Thacker who had taken it upon himself to civilize college admissions.

Mr. Thacker's sermon is that admissions should be about matching kids with the colleges that will make them happiest instead of a cutthroat race to get into the plummiest college possible.

When I wrote in March, Mr. Thacker, a former college admissions counselor, was urging schools to rethink their participation in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, because he thinks they push admissions toward commercialization and encourage kids and colleges to game the system.

I confess I labeled him a "voice-in-the-wilderness" type because, sincere as his mission is, the powerful rankings are a tough nut for one idealist to crack.

Boy, was I wrong.

As of last week, 61 college presidents had signed a letter sponsored by his nonprofit organization, The Education Conservancy, pledging to boycott part of the U.S. News process.

The colleges, mostly small liberal arts schools, include two from TexasAustin College in Sherman and Southwestern University in Georgetown.

The signers agreed to ignore a U.S. News request to rate other colleges, based on their reputation among peers. They also promised not to churn out press releases bragging about a high – or improved – ranking or claiming that a ranking really tells much about a school's quality.

College officials have long said they don't know many other schools well enough to comfortably assign a numeric grade – especially knowing those grades make up 25 percent of a college's total score.

These may seem like baby steps. The schools are still free to participate in most parts of the rankings (though several, including Austin College, say they will stop sending in data that are available to the public). But I still think signing takes courage. Many of the schools are respected in their regions but must work hard to attract notice elsewhere. A good ranking can help recruit students and financial backers from other parts of the country.

U.S. News plans to release the next batch of rankings at the end of this week.

Defenders say the rankings provide a valuable service to students who want to make sure the dollars they spend on increasingly high tuition rates are well spent. Others say the rankings are here to stay, so colleges should get with the program.

Some skeptics say the 61 challengers are, well, voice-in-the-wilderness idealists. A handful of small colleges won't derail something as entrenched as the rankings, they say – especially not these colleges, since none are rated higher than 30th on U.S. News' list.I doubt U.S. News is deeply worried about the boycott – though it has attracted a fair amount of press attention, and the magazine did notify journalists recently that it has created a new blog run by its data guru, Robert Morse, called Morse Code: Inside the College Rankings. When I checked last week, activity was slow – probably because Mr. Morse was busy putting out the next rankings.

I've never been a big fan of the rankings. They encourage kids to focus on a few factors that can be represented by a single number instead of the rich range of opportunities offered by any school.

Choosing a college is a big decision, one that families should spend some real time researching and thinking through.

Yes, Harvard is a great university, and, yes, it's a great credential to have on your résumé. But a big part of its reputation is based on the quality of its graduate programs and research by its faculty. What do you know about its undergraduate classes, campus life and social scene? Does it even offer majors you're interested in? The only way to find out is to investigate – talk to alumni, read several guidebooks, troll the Web site thoroughly and, most important, visit the campus if possible.

U.S. News, to its credit, has improved its presentation over the years, adding things like a tuition planner, tips for handling admissions pressures and features about campus life. But the highlight is still the rankings, and those are scored in fewer than 20 categories.

It's silly to think you can boil a complex institution down to a few numbers, no matter how well chosen the categories are. I'd dismiss the whole process as silly if families – and even worse, colleges – didn't take the rankings so seriously.

The part of the pledge by the 61 presidents that impresses me most is the promise not to publicize their rankings, no matter how stunning. Colleges are notorious for moaning that the ratings are simplistic and misleading, then cranking out promotional materials hyping their performance. College A jumped from No. 65 to No. 58! Jumped? Jumped?? Colleges don't jump. They move glacially, especially when it comes to change. It takes years to add new majors, build a great faculty and substantially improve the student body.

Equally absurd is a claim that Princeton University (ranked No. 1 last year) is better than Harvard (No. 2) or the University of Chicago (a distressing No. 9). They're very different schools with very different missions. What's worse, none of the country's great public universities make the top 20 – in part because they aren't as rich as private schools so don't compete well in categories like class size and faculty resources. The University of California, Berkeley, is No. 21 and the University of Virginia is 24. Most higher-education experts would say both belong at the top of any list.

My favorite send-up of the rankings was created by a former Duke University professor named Stuart Rojstaczer, who now works as a consultant. He criticizes a lot about U.S. News' lists, but what he has the most fun lampooning is the way schools move around in the rankings each year. It's preposterous, he says, to think that a college somehow slips – or improves – enough in just 12 months to move up or down several notches.

His College_Ranking_Service is a Web page spoof that lets you choose among four "ranking methods" – The Classic, The Fairness, Love My Parents and Hate My Parents. I clicked on The Classic, and up popped Harvard, Stanford, Rice, Chicago, MIT, Columbia, Caltech, Princeton, Yale and Johns Hopkins, ranked 1 to 10. When I hit the refresh button, Dartmouth was on top. Three seconds later, it was Stanford.

You come away having a hard time taking U.S. News' high tone about its statistical methodology seriously.

But the rankings have revealed a great public appetite for more information about how well colleges perform. Families want this information in a format that will let them compare several schools – a need that both Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have promised to address.

This gets me back to Mr. Thacker and the renegade presidents.

He and a group of college officials are meeting at Yale next month to talk about devising a data retrieval system that would allow parents, students and guidance counselors to compare colleges. One key would be settling on the right measures. Another would be getting colleges to go along – especially highly rated, expensive ones that fare well in the current system.

Ever the optimist, Mr. Thacker believes this next venture will succeed. Several influential higher-education organizations are already promoting similar ideas. And last week Mr. Thacker said he had heard from presidents of several top-ranked liberal arts schools who sympathized with his goals but couldn't join the movement without approval from their boards – or without assurance that other top-ranked colleges would take the plunge, too.

Mr. Thacker also believes many colleges are ready to ratchet down the admissions frenzy, because they think it will be healthier for students, parents, high schools and the colleges themselves.

"The Yale meeting is the logical thing. It's the next step," he said. "It's what they should be doing."


The Letter

This letter, signed initially by 12 college presidents, is being sent to hundreds of presidents.
Please see the growing list of signatories at the bottom of this page

May 10, 2007

Dear Colleague:

We are writing to seek your commitment (and the commitment of your institution) to a new approach to rankings of colleges and universities compiled by U.S. News and World Report.

We believe these rankings are misleading and do not serve well the interests of prospective students in finding a college or university that is well suited to their education beyond high school. Among other reasons, we believe this because such rankings

  • imply a false precision and authority that is not warranted by the data they use;
  • obscure important differences in educational mission in aligning institutions on a single scale;
  • say nothing or very little about whether students are actually learning at particular colleges or universities;
  • encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship in institutions' pursuing improved rankings;
  • overlook the importance of a student in making education happen and overweight the importance of a university's prestige in that process; and
  • degrade for students the educational value of the college search process.

While we believe colleges and universities may want to cooperate in providing data to publications for the purposes of rankings, we believe such data provision should be limited to data which is collected in accord with clear, shared professional standards (not the idiosyncratic standards of any single publication), and to data which is required to be reported to state or federal officials or which the institution believes (in accord with good accountability) should routinely be made available to any member of the public who seeks it.

We ask you to make the following two commitments:

1. Refuse to fill out the U.S. News and World Report reputational survey.

2. Refuse to use the rankings in any promotional efforts on behalf of your college or university, and more generally, refuse to refer to the rankings as an indication of the quality of your college or university.

Each of us has already made these commitments. We ask you to do the same.

In accord with these commitments, you may want to provide a link on your website to information about how you are ranked by U.S. News and World Report, but to do this in a way that simply provides information, not in a way that suggests you value the specific ranking or support the ranking project. Similarly, in answering questions from students, parents, reporters, alumni, or prospective students and parents, these commitments would lead you to answer such questions factually, but not in a way that suggests you value how you are ranked or that suggests support for the ranking project.

Other publications also provide rankings of colleges and universities, and the commitments stated here may also guide you in deciding whether or how to respond to requests from or inquiries about these other rankings.

As we go forward, we will also be working with the Education Conservancy and with other groups to develop clear explanations of what rankings of colleges and universities do and do not mean, and to develop better approaches (including ones that assess student learning) to helping prospective students find and evaluate colleges and universities that will serve well their education beyond high school.

Will you join us in these endeavors?

Sincerely yours,

Douglas C. Bennett, Earlham College
William G. Durden, Dickinson College
Jackie Jenkins-Scott, Wheelock College
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, Marlboro College
Patricia McGuire, Trinity (D.C.) University
Christopher Nelson, St. John's College (Annapolis)
Michael Peters, St. John's College (Santa Fe)
Kathleen Ross, Heritage University
Jake Schrum, Southwestern University
G. T. "Buck" Smith, Bethany College
Robert Weisbuch, Drew University
Daniel H. Weiss, Lafayette College

Additional Signatories:

William Bloodworth, Augusta State University
Walter M. Bortz III, Hampden-Sydney College
R. Judson Carlberg, Gordon College
F. Javier Cevallos, Kutztown University
Thomas V. Chema, Hiram College
Joan Develin Coley, McDaniel College
Thomas B. Coburn, Naropa University
Robert A. Corrigan, San Francisco State University
Alan S. Cureton, Northwestern College (MN)
Gary Dill, College of the Southwest
Donald R. Eastman III, Eckerd College
Mark Erickson, Wittenberg University
Julius E. Erlenbach, University of Wisconsin-Superior
John V. Griffith, Presbyterian College
George J. Hagerty, Franklin Pierce College
Tori Haring-Smith, Washington and Jefferson College
Peyton R. Helm, Muhlenberg College
Ralph Hexter, Hampshire College
Dean Hubbard, Northwest Missouri State University
Mark W. Huddleston, Ohio Wesleyan University
James F. Jones, Trinity College (CT)
David C. Joyce, Ripon College
Walter Kimbrough, Philander Smith College
Stuart Kirk, College of Santa Fe
Dale Thomas Knobel, Denison University

Ruth A. Knox, Wesleyan College
Alton Lacey, Missouri Baptist University
Sylvia Manning, University of Illinois at Chicago
Michael McFarland, College of the Holy Cross
Lex O. McMillan III, Albright College
Carolyn W. Meyers, Norfolk State University
John W. Mills, Paul Smiths College
Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, Sweet Briar College
S. Georgia Nugent, Kenyon College
Oscar C. Page, Austin College
James Phifer, Coe College
G. David Pollick, Birmingham-Southern College
William Craig Rice, Shimer College, Chicago
Stephen D. Schutt, Lake Forest College
Rebecca Sherrick, Aurora University
David Shi, Furman University
Larry Shinn, Berea College
John Strassburger, Ursinus College
Christopher M. Thomforde, Moravian College
Baird Tipson, Washington College
Richard L. Torgerson, Luther College
Mitchell Tomashow, Unity College (ME)
Saundra Tracy, Alma College
Sanford Ungar, Goucher College



Applying to college does not have to be overwhelming! The following principles and guidelines can help make the college admission process more manageable, more productive, and more educationally appropriate.

This guidance is offered by the Education Conservancy, a group of admission professionals committed to calming the commercial frenzy by affirming educational values in college admission.


These guiding principles are relevant for parents, students, counselors and admission deans:

• Education is a process, not a product. Students are learners, not customers.

• The benefits and predictors of good education are knowable yet virtually impossible to measure.

• Rankings oversimplify and mislead.

• A student’s intellectual skills and attitude about learning are more important than what college a student attends.

• Educational values are best served by admission practices that are consistent with these values.

• College admission should be part of an educational process directed toward student autonomy and intellectual maturity.

• Colleges can be assessed, but not ranked. Students can be evaluated, but not measured.

• Students’ thoughts, ideas and passions are worthy to be engaged and handled with utmost care.

Student Guidelines

An admission decision, test score, or GPA is not a measure of your self-worth. And, most students are admitted to colleges they want to attend. Knowing this, we encourage you to:

• Be confident! Take responsibility for your college admission process. The more you do for yourself, the better the results will be.

• Be deliberate! Applying to college involves thoughtful research to determine distinctions among colleges, as well as careful self-examination to identify your interests, learning style and other criteria.

Plan to make well-considered applications to the most suitable colleges. This is often referred to as “making good matches.”

• Be realistic and trust your instincts! Choosing a college is an important process, but not a life or death decision. Since there are limits to what you can know about colleges and about yourself, you should allow yourself to do educated guesswork.

• Be open-minded! Resist the notion that there is one perfect college. Great education happens in many places.

• Use a variety of resources for gathering information. Seek advice from those people who know you, care about you, and are willing to help.

• Be honest; be yourself! Do not try to game the system.

• Resist taking any standardized test numerous times (twice is usually sufficient).

• Limit your applications to a well-researched and reasonable number. No more than six should be sufficient, except in special cases.

• Know that what you do in college is a better predictor of future success and happiness than where you go to college.

Parent Guidelines

An admission decision, test score, or GPA is not a measure of a student’s worth. And, parents should always be mindful of the behavior they are modeling for their children. Knowing this, we encourage you to:

• Recognize that gaining admission to college is merely one step in a process of education that will include your student attending a college where she or he can maximize talents and growth. Emphasize the education.

• Resist doing for your students what they are capable of doing for themselves.

• Allow your child to take responsibility for his or her own part of the college application process. Be involved in the process, but do not try to control it.

• Resist relying on rankings and college selectivity to determine the most suitable colleges for your child.

• Realize that researching, selecting, and applying to colleges does not have to be an expensive process.

• Resist attempts to turn the process into a status competition. Develop a healthy, educationally based, and family-appropriate approach to college admissions.

• Consider that gaming the system may not only diminish your child’s self-confidence, it may also jeopardize desired admission outcomes.

• Listen to, encourage and believe in your child. Do not use the term “we” as in “we are applying to….”

• Discuss the idea of education as an ongoing process, and how selecting a college might be different from buying a product.

• Love them enough to let them demonstrate the independence you have instilled in them.

• Keep this process in perspective. Remember that student skills, self-confidence, curiosity, and desire to learn are some of the most important ingredients in quality education and successful college admissions.

Do not sacrifice these by overemphasizing getting into the “best” college.


Phillip Ballinger, University of Washington

Michael Beseda, St. Mary’s College of California

Jennifer Britz, Kenyon College

J. Antonio Cabasco, Whitman College

Sean Callaway, Pace University

John Carroll, Kalamazoo College

Sidonia Dalby, Smith College

Doris Davis, Cornell University

Will Dix, University of Chicago Lab School

Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard University

Karl Furstenberg, Dartmouth College

Marilee Jones, MIT

Daniel Lundquist, Union College

Brad MacGowan, Newton North High School

Bonnie Marcus, Bard College

Paul Marthers, Reed College

Robert Massa, Dickinson College

David McDonald, Western Oregon University

Tom McWhertor, Calvin College

Mark Moody, The Bush School

Marty O’Connell, Colleges That Change Lives

Ted O’Neill, University of Chicago

Bruce Poch, Pomona College

Jon Reider, San Francisco University High School

Jeff Rickey, Earlham College

Mike Sexton, Lewis and Clark College

Bill Shain, Vanderbilt University

Jim Sumner, Grinnell College

Steven Syverson, Lawrence University

Harold Wingood, Clark University

805 SW Broadway, Suite 1600Portland, OR 97205 • Ph. 503.290.0083 • Fax 503.973.5252 •

No comments: