Annual college rankings debated

Each year in the late summer, college administrators begin fretting over where their school will fall in the annual rankings of the country’s most elite institutions. They know that students and their parents place a lot of faith in those lists.

But national experts have been pushing for schools, parents and students to move away from the “pop culture” rankings toward other ratings they say more accurately reflect a university’s ability to shepherd students through to graduation.

The vast majority of the criticism is directed toward U.S. News & World Report, whose annual listing of the nation’s universities has risen to the top of the heap. Critics argue that the online magazine uses methodology that has more to do with prestige than academic quality.

U.S. News ranks schools based on many of the traditional measures including graduation rates, student retention and faculty-to-student ratio. But the publication also rates schools on how much cash they raise from alumni, the amount of money spent on facilities and how they are viewed by peer institutions.

Some of the latter criteria have led to the perception that colleges can figuratively “buy” higher rankings by raising a lot of cash and spending it.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell down played some of those critiques this week as overblown. He defended the U.S. News rankings as using the “right range” of criteria to give prospective students a good idea of a school’s merits.

As controversial as they have become, there is little question that the U.S. News rankings matter. Louisiana Tech University was one of two public colleges in the state to be ranked by U.S. News as a Tier One school. In September, Tech President Dan Reneau credited “the tireless efforts and dedication of our faculty and staff” as contributing to Tech’s tie for 199th, or last place, on the “Best National Universities” list.

On the same day, LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins said he was “clearly disappointed” to learn that LSU had tumbled six spots from 128th last year to 134th in the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2013” list. Tulane University, ranked at 51, was the only other Louisiana school ranked in the national universities list.

Jenkins last week acknowledged that schools have to pay close attention to U.S. News rankings because high school students and their parents pay attention to them.

“U.S. News is not the most refined, but it’s important because it’s well-known. In a pure world, we wouldn’t pay so much attention,” Jenkins said.

Robert Kelchen argues that students and schools would be better off paying attention to rankings using a formula that he helped devise. The doctoral candidate in educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzes “which schools give the most bang for the buck.” His formula is used by the Washington Monthly magazine in their annual college rankings.

Kelchen said his formula looks at the SAT and ACT scores of incoming students; student population; the number of students who qualify for federal financial aid; and the number of students attending school full-time versus part-time. He uses those factors to come up with a university’s “expected graduation rate.” The expected graduation rate is compared to the school’s actual graduation rate and tuition costs to come up with a ranking.

Kelchen explains that his criteria takes into account which students are most vulnerable to not finishing school. For instance, low-income students are less likely than their peers to finish school; women are more likely to graduate than men; and students with lower test scores are less likely to make it all the way through graduation.

Douglas Harris collaborated with Kelchen on the formula. The associate economics professor at Tulane University said their formula rewards schools that graduate more students than expected, and at a reasonable price.

He said other rankings, including U.S. News, can more easily be manipulated by spending.

Colleges know they can boost themselves, so there’s no incentive to keep costs down,” he said. “With our rankings, we look at value, the relationship of what you get and what you paid for it.”

As the state’s point man for higher education, Purcell argued that most of the rankings out there have some value and that schools should pay attention to them.

He also defended the controversial alumni donations as an important component in ranking schools.

“Alumni giving is an important measure because it’s an indication of whether people liked the institution. It’s not how much you give, but your willingness to give,” that’s telling, he said.

LSU’s Nicole Baute Honorée, said out of all the rankings out there, only one matters — the National Science Foundation’s which measures research expenditures. As LSU’s director of research and economic development initiatives, she said the National Science Foundation rankings give a broad look at a university’s academic growth over time, she said.

The amount of money a university spends on research is a good measure of the value it is creating to students, Honorée said. The money spent on research shows whether a university is growing academically. Academic growth on a university’s part translates to student achievement, she said.

“Universities are in the knowledge business. As in creating new knowledge and passing it along,” she said. “That’s why the NSF rankings are the gold standard.”