Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Students Becoming More Than College Rankings

Last week, the Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Claremont McKenna College announced that he had falsified SAT data submitted to college ranking organizations.  Ouch.  How would it feel to be a recently admitted CMC* and find out that your SAT scores weren’t good enough to send in to US News and World Reports?

*I am just going to assume that this is their abbreviation…because up until this scandal, I had never heard of CMC.  I guess that is an upside of this: people around the country now know about the school.

 In addition to their lack of confidence, CMC also has an integrity problem.  Having a lying director of admissions encouraging students to apply does not exactly scream “come here and you will graduate with integrity.”  However, there’s a broader problem, too.

If the school was forging scores on incoming students’ records, then this should have actually reduced the rankings of the school.  Confused?  Let me explain.  Good schools are not those that take in already brilliant, well-educated students and four years later spit out the same brilliant, well-educated students.  The only impact that such a school makes is that their graduates now own a really expensive piece of paper.

Despite this odd system of measuring value, this is how US News and Washington Monthly rank colleges.  For US News, about 15% of a schools ranking is composed of the characteristics of the incoming students.  The remaining components of the score are outputs (what the school does – like hours of service or research expenditures), not outcomes (what happens as a result of the outputs).  Likewise, Washington Monthly’s rankings incorporate some inputs (high school seniors’ test scores, GPA, general knowledge of the world and its problems, etc.) indirectly, via a “predicted graduation rate.”  The remaining parts of the score come from outputs.   Because these reports rely heavily on inputs and outputs to determine the impact of an institution, schools have an incentive to increase (or forge) statistics that reflect these measures.  Unfortunately, these measures to not describe the difference that schools make in the lives of their students or the value that they add to society.  A valuable school is one where the difference between the “inputs” and the outcomes (not outputs) is the greatest.  Even better is a school that achieves this while simultaneously having impactful outcomes.  

Washington Monthly’s rankings do include a small measure of outcomes – the number of students that go on to serve in the Peace Corps.  However, this accounts for only one-fifteenth of a school’s score and it does not account for who the students were when they entered school.  It is possible that student Z would have joined the Peace Corps irrespective of what occurred at College Y.  In this case, the impact of the school (on this measure) is insignificant.

Some experts who have been involved in education for a very long time – over 475 years, in fact – have latched on to the proper way to measure the value of a school and an education.  The Jesuits have been teaching the world’s rich and poor – preschoolers to PhDers – for over four centuries.  I think it’s fair to say that they know a thing or two about education.  Their philosophy of education is beautifully captured in this quote from the Jesuit leader during the last quarter of the 20th century: “The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.”  This does not just mean what a graduate does for a career, how much money they make, or how much they contribute to their alma mater’s endowment fund.  Rather, Fr. Kolvenbach says that the true value of an education is how you use it to make the world a better place – whether it is through physics, photography, or philanthropy.  All colleges and universities (and preschools, grade schools, and high schools for that matter) should adopt this as the motto of their institutions.

As a graduate of Creighton (yes, a Jesuit school), I am proud of the fact that CU rakes in number one rankings from both the US News and Washington Monthly lists.*  Who doesn’t like to claim they are the best?  However, these rankings do not accurately capture the value of CU, or of any institution.  Rather, it is the change that the school makes on individuals and who students become as a result of attending a school that is the true measure of an institution’s value – whether Jesuit, Catholic, private, or public.

*Top rankings in “master’s universities” (Washington Monthly) and “regional universities - Midwest” (US News) categories.  The three other major categories are liberal arts colleges, national universities, and bachelorette/regional colleges.

It is unfortunate that a Claremont McKenna College administrator dedicated a significant amount of time to altering SAT scores while he should have been investing in programs that formed students who made a difference in the world.  My guess is that he didn’t go to a Jesuit school.

1 comment:

  1. It is quite difficult to accurately measure the "value that they add to society" for graduates. The Peace corps is a start but rating how valuable certain jobs and skills are for society would be tricky. Also, I think an important factor should be whether students felt their education was valuable. A lot of kids walk out of college with a lot more debt that actual educational value.


Keep it civil.