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Kenyon Questions Usefulness of Newly Released Rankings

By Sam Colt

In U.S. News & World Reports annual ranking of Americas top liberal arts colleges, Kenyon ranked 32nd, a spot the College shares with three other schools: Bucknell University, College of the Holy Cross and Mount Holyoke College.

This ranking, however, relies on a limited data set, according to President S. Georgia Nugent.

They reward you for how much money you can spend per student. Thats a huge factor. And they reward you for how many people you can exclude from your college. Thats not good for the American public, Nugent said. Its not good for higher education. So its very hard to be proud of rating well in a survey that is so badly constructed.

In fact, the College does not provide any information for rating or ranking schools. Instead, Kenyon posts data on its website, readily available for any interested parties.

In the past, Nugent has been vocal about her view of college rating systems. On Aug. 19, 2004 she released a joint statement along with 14 other liberal arts college presidents on their view of U.S. News rankings.

One point of contention has been the peer assessment survey the publication gives to college officials and uses in determining its rankings. We expect our students to make reasoned judgments based on data appropriately analyzed, but U.S. News asks presidents for judgment based on no data, with no analytical rigor, reads the statement.

Its like ranking your hamburger at McDonalds. It was good, not so good, lousy, Nugent said. Thats it. Thats a nuanced instrument? And, as a president, you shouldnt be ranking all these colleges. You cant possibly know all these colleges.

Three years later, in what is now called the Presidents Letter, Nugent again signed a statement developed by the Education Conservancy that sought to eschew U.S. News rankings and develop an alternative ranking system.

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, the letter said. The letter also accused U.S. News of implying false precision and authority, encouraging gamesmanship between schools and obscuring important differences between institutions.

The Presidents Letter asks for two commitments from its signatories. First, signatories agree to refuse to fill out U.S. News reputational survey. Signatories are also asked to abstain from using the rankings in promotional materials or as an indicator of the quality of their college or university.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to ignore how rankings may influence a prospective student or parent. Yes, we know that people look at those rankings, particularly U.S News, and so we certainly dont want to be at the bottom of that list, Nugent said.

The magazines methodology is available online. Each year, the publication sends a statistical survey to all of the schools it seeks to rank. On its website, U.S. News claims 92 percent 1,280 of the 1,391 institutions it surveyed returned answers to its survey last year. Some data used in the rankings, such as a colleges acceptance rate or its student-to-faculty ratio, are widely published and easily accessible. Other metrics, like faculty pay, are more difficult to know for certain without the participation of the college in question.

Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jennifer Delahunty said she thinks the rankings ignore how well a student fits a college entirely. The equivalent for us in Admissions would be to choose all kids based on their SAT scores and their GPAs, she said. If you look at it, the order [of the rankings] is almost directly correlated to endowment. In aggregate, a colleges financial resources indeed account for 35 percent of their ranking in the liberal arts college category.

Journalists, including the New Yorkers Malcolm Gladwell, have criticized U.S. News for how it weights its data. For instance, U.S. News weights 22.5 percent of its ranking of liberal arts colleges on what it calls undergraduate academic reputation, which consists of a survey given to college presidents and a survey given to high school counselors, both of which are subjective.

Some schools are acutely aware of U.S. News effect on their yield the number of accepted students who chose to enroll. In August, Emory University President Jim Wagner admitted the University had misrepresented itself in data it sent to groups that rank colleges for at least 12 years.

Good people do bad things because of the rankings, Delahunty said. Ive heard of admission deans being pressured to increase their score averages in order to gain in the rankings. Its presidential and board pressure that forces them into doings things like that.

Despite U.S. News clout, many high school counselors are wary of relying too much on the rankings. [The rankings are] not a tool I use often at all, said Myrna Kennerly, a college counselor at Mount Vernon High School. I know when I look at those rankings that they are skewed, and Ill tell my students that. You have to remind kids that you can go to two or three publications and get different rankings.

Jeff Stahlman, a counselor at New Albany High School, echoed this sentiment. At New Albany, up to 40 percent of seniors go to colleges and universities out of state. I think [the rankings are] ridiculous. Theyre based on faulty premises, I think theres no question about that, he said.

Stahlman said any value in the rankings comes from their use as a starting point in the college search process. Rankings are a hassle to us. Parents and students will use them. Its a beginning point before getting to what really matters, which is fit, he said.

Some high school students are also skittish about the rankings. I find college rankings helpful and accurate, but at the same time, they arent vital to decision making because I want to go to a school [that best fits] me, not what others consider the best, Maria Moraitakis, a senior at the private Pace Academy in Atlanta, said in an email.

For those who do not participate in or give credence to college rankings, distinguishing similar institutions from one another is an imperfect system. Both Delahunty and Stahlman recommended the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as a possible substitute for traditional college rankings. Whereas traditional rankings focus on hard numerical data, the NSSE seeks to understand the experiences students have at college. The Council of Independent Colleges, of which Kenyon is a member, participates in the NSSE annually.

We need to give the consumer a way to evaluate the investment, Delahunty said.

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