Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

‘Tis the ranking season

Sean Decatur
September 16, 2013

August and September have become the season of college rankings.  Magazines and newspapers love them, and each year the number and types of things that are ranked seem to proliferate:  Kenyon is ranked among the most beautiful college campuses; the most “hipster” schools; the best athletic facilities.   Dominating the news cycle are the media outlets who annually report on overall performance, issuing reports on the Best Colleges.  These include Forbes, the Washington Monthly, and of course US News and World Report, a once-venerable magazine whose print issues now focus almost exclusively on ranking things.

I have made a case previously that these rankings in and of themselves are harmless, but that they must but analyzed and contextualized.  Others have made this point as well.  From one perspective, the college rankings phenomenon is a part of our larger cultural urge to make distinctions based on perceptions of quality, separating the “best” from the “good.”  A great example is the recent effort of the blog site Grantland to determine the best song of the millennium (so far).

But,  the college rankings also address a deeper issue.  Families want to make informed decisions about their college choices, and while the “fit” for determining a college is about much more than the statistics, we’d be naïve to suggest that the numbers don’t matter at all.   Just as no home buyer commits an investment without both feeling that the house is the right fit and checking out the available data on the home’s performance and future performance as an investment, we should not expect families to invest in college decisions without having similar information available.  Families are very interested in some measure that can suggest the educational outcomes for students.  Rankings such as US News fail to capture outcomes completely (relying more in input data); but, in the absence of other information, they serve as a proxy.

The federal government has stepped in with a tool (the White House College Scorecard) to allow families to compare educational institutions in terms of outcomes; and, recently President Obama directed the Department of Education to develop its own college ratings system by the year 2015; in the long term, the president proposes to link the rating systems to federal financial aid awards.

The overall direction of this initiative – provide transparent data for families to make prudent investment choices and link federal financial aid dollars to quality of educational experience – is well intended.  Yet, this also makes me very nervous.  First, ratings and data are only valuable if the standards of collection and reporting are consistent from institution to institution, and the methodologies and formulae used to determine ratings are transparent and reproducible.  These are some of the biggest flaws of the magazine rankings – methodologies change from year to year, or formula used to determine scores are not given.  Data are sometimes extracted from questionable sources (see Forbes’ use of, or rely upon incomplete self-reported databases (such as, a site that reports post-graduate earnings based on self-reporting of individuals; since individual alums have to log in and fill out a survey, the database has a small and inconsistent sampling of graduates).  In other words, the quality of the federal system will depend on the quality of the data and the transparency of the methodology.

In the meantime, institutions like Kenyon need to be proactive at telling our own stories in terms of data – what are the outcomes of a Kenyon education?  What are the career trajectories of Kenyon graduates?  The After Kenyon pages on the new website are a first start to taking control over our own story; here browsers can find quantitative data on job placement of Kenyon graduates, information about professional school applications and placement, and stories from and about Kenyon alums.  This is a first step in this direction; while it may not completely replace the instinctive needs addressed by the US News list, this begins to give useful information to families to assess the value and impact of a Kenyon education.