27.9.06

RETHINKING THE RANKINGS.

An organization called Education Sector discloses some of the thinking behind its college ranking system, which the Washington Monthly picked up in August. (Via Joanne Jacobs.)

There's still some tweaking to be done. The report's executive summary notes the following.
College rankings have increasingly defined the terms of the marketplace in higher education and the message from the market is clear: wealth, fame, and exclusivity are what gets colleges and universities ahead today.
Maybe.
The college diplomas of the nation's top executives tell an intriguing story: Getting to the corner office has more to do with leadership talent and a drive for success than it does with having an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university.
(Via University Diaries.)

Professor Mankiw concurs in part and dissents in part.
Interesting spin. You could turn the numbers around and tell a different story. My very rough guess is that about 1 percent of college graduates have degrees from Ivy League schools. So that 10-percent figure means that an Ivy League graduate is about ten times more likely to become a CEO than is an average college graduate.Of course, the better chances for the Ivy League grad are largely a selection effect rather than a treatment effect, as discussed in this old article by Alan Krueger.
(A commenter provides an odd factoid: "It's also still true that there are more University of Wisconsin CEOs than any single Ivy League school CEOs. That's odd even if it's a freak." And the mercantilists in Wisconsin fret about how many graduates leave the state? Somebody has to specialize in the production of future CEOs. Might as well be Wisconsin, now that exporting hockey players to bring down an Evil Empire isn't an option.)

Re-railing the train of thought ...
Gary Randsell, the president of Western Kentucky University (WKU), is well aware of that fact. While the lion's share of public attention to higher education is focused on elite colleges and major research universities, institutions like WKU—public, regional, masters-granting institutions—are actually far more representative of higher education today. Along with community colleges, the WKUs of the world are where most college students actually go to college.
Thus the importance of the mid-majors. Don't we owe our best students the same intellectual challenges the alleged name-brand universities are supposed to present?

To some extent Mr Randsell gets it.
By today's standards, Randsell has been an unusually successful president, rapidly growing WKU's applicant pool, enrollment and endowment, recruiting new faculty and building new university facilities. “I want nationally competitive faculty,” he says. “I want nationally competitive students. I want facilities that are national or world-class in terms of technology. I want a campus that is second-to-none in beautification. You've got to compete, you've got to work hard, you've got to be doing things that continue to improve your quality, or you're going to get passed in a hurry in this business….We're going to compete in that arms race and we're going to win.”
(His appearance on "Declining by Degrees" was less encouraging.)

The interpretation the folks at Education Sector draw is also less encouraging.
President Randsell's comments illustrate just how fiercely successful leaders will compete on whatever terms the marketplace demands—and they suggest how little the terms of today's marketplace have to do with how well students are taught, how much they learn, whether they graduate, and whether they succeed in their future lives.
The higher education premium is a premium to human capital formation, not an incentive to acquire a signal. "Nationally-competitive" is a statement about success in teaching, learning, and graduating. Why apologize for these things, or for paying a premium price for premium professors, or for charging a premium price for the opportunity to study with such professors and sharpen your brains with premium classmates?
Because today's rankings reward institutions for wealth, many college presidents are no longer national intellectual leaders but narrowly focused fundraisers-in-chief. Because rankings reward institutions for their “scholarly” reputations, colleges recruit faculty who are distinguished in research even if their teaching skills are sub-par. Because the current rankings reward colleges for selective admissions and high freshman SAT scores, more scholarships are going to wealthy, high-achieving applicants, instead of the lower-income students who need financial aid the most.
Isn't it possible to address the defects in the U.S. News rankings and provide some content at the same time. Endowment: what's that? Again the canard: excellent researcher, indifferent teacher. Again the gripes about merit scholarships. See here on the real scandal in higher education, here on the excess capacity devoted to remediation and retention, which I'm tempted to refer to as high school with beer bongs, and here on the resulting social waste. One more time: what's wrong with bolstering retention by screening out individuals who are more likely a priori not to make it through? (And don't fob them off on the trade schools!)
The failure of the U.S. News rankings to provide colleges with incentives to improve the quality of their teaching is one reason why studies have found that many American collegians aren't learning what they need to know. In a recent report on college-student literacy, for example, the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research revealed that only 38 percent of graduating seniors could successfully perform tasks like comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials.
It strikes me as exceedingly cumbersome to lay off on a newsmagazine what might more logically be charged to the failure of the common schools to do their work in the first place, or to the failure of the access-assessment-remediation-retention culture in the academy to say Enough to those common schools.
What the U.S. News rankings do, in effect, is confirm the status of colleges and universities that by virtue of their prestige are valuable to students irrespective of the quality of the education they provide. Students could get a rotten education at Harvard and Yale and they would still be ahead of the game because Ivy League degrees have so much cache.[c.q.]
One wishes people who represent themselves as researchers of higher education would be familiar with the Spielberg Effect.
But the vast majority of college students—almost 90 percent—don't attend selective colleges and universities. They attend institutions that don't have the status to open doors for their graduates on the basis of name alone. Instead, what matters to these students is the quality of the education that they receive.
No argument. But rather than grouse about a newsmagazine's ranking system and raise false objections to merit scholarships, why not recognize higher education's real credibility problem, summarized in coreless curricula and inflated grades?

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