'Hearsay' Isn't the Way to Choose a College

 Friday, June 29, 2007 00:59 PM

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Published by The Morning Call
June 29, 2007

America loves competition and America loves lists. They do little or no harm and are often lots of fun. Think World Series, American Idol, and David Letterman. So what's wrong with the U.S. News & World Report college rankings? And why will I be working with other college presidents and educational organizations to develop an alternative rather than filling out the magazine's absurd survey next year?

The answer is really not that complicated. U.S. News claims that the annual college rankings issue (which many claim is their biggest seller and moneymaker) provides an important tool to parents and students engaged in searching for the ''best'' college or university. Nonsense. That's like saying People Magazine's 10 Most Eligible Bachelors list provides an important tool to women looking for a husband.

The fact is, high school seniors are so tremendously varied in their interests, talents, personalities, and abilities that there is no single way of measuring what is ''best'' for all of them. Distance from home, range of majors and other programs of study, athletic and extracurricular options, learning outcomes, campus atmosphere, and graduate and professional school placement rates -- all are important factors for students weighing the choice of a college, and none are considered in the U.S. News rankings.

Instead, 25 percent of the magazine's ratings -- the most heavily weighted single factor -- is based on the so-called ''reputational survey'' in which college presidents, deans, and deans of admission rate other institutions on a five-point scale from inadequate to very good. But what are we really evaluating?

I know my own college, Muhlenberg, very well of course. I know it's unmatched for a close and supportive campus atmosphere, great liberal arts teaching, and our graduates' impressive success rate in obtaining jobs and admission to medical, law, and other graduate and professional schools. But even a great college like Muhlenberg isn't right for everybody. The student who wants to major in engineering or play Division I football or live in a large urban campus would not find what she or he is looking for with us. Most of the 260 or so schools in my survey are totally unfamiliar to me, so I check ''N/A.'' But what of the handful of institutions I do know fairly well? What am I supposed to be evaluating? Their curricula? Their facilities? The quality of the food in their dining halls? Apparently I am supposed to rate their ''reputations'' -- and what is my knowledge based on? Rumors, hearsay, time-worn memories from when I was applying to college a generation ago, or vague impressions gathered when my sons were on the college search trail a few years ago?

Most of the other factors weighted by U.S. News in their rankings (in a secret formula they will not reveal, that is changed every year, and that independent researchers have been unable to replicate) are based, ultimately, on institutional wealth. A few of these (such as faculty-student ratio) have a direct bearing on educational quality. A few (such as SAT score ranges for admitted students) may provide helpful guidance as to whether a student has a good chance of admission.

The U.S. News rankings may organize some useful information in an easy-to-read format, but as a tool for choosing the right college they are seriously flawed. Most of the data simply reflects the size of institutions' endowments and fundraising muscle -- not how effectively those resources are deployed. A trustee once asked me what it would take for Muhlenberg to be ranked in the top five by U.S. News. My answer was simple: A check for $800 million placed directly in the endowment would do it -- even if we never changed another thing we were doing.

What you won't read in U.S. News is that most of the data they use is public information, readily available on the Web sites of most colleges and universities, as well as on the U.S. Department of Education Web site. There is no single formula for weighting these factors -- they will have different significance for different students and families.

So, next year I and many other leaders of our nation's best colleges and universities will be working on a new and better Web-based tool for families engaged in the college search, laying out essential statistics on admissions, costs, financial aid, majors and degree programs, diversity, campus life, graduation rates, and post-graduate options. Families can weigh each of these factors according to their own needs, interests, and priorities. Our tool will not have the razzle-dazzle of the Super Bowl or the Miss America contest, but it will provide a standardized, transparent, and easily accessible snapshot of key information that families need to make this important decision. I expect this will keep me busy, so don't expect to see me on ''Dancing with the Stars.''