Jewish World Review Feb 8, 2012/ 13 Shevat, 5772
College rankings aren't always reliable
By Dan K. Thomasson
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Everyone knows there is cheating in colleges. Now it turns out some of the institutions themselves cheat. Well, well, imagine that. Who would have thunk it?
And guess what? This isn't one of those scandals involving the athletic department, where schools caught with major NCAA infractions end up being penalized for lack of institutional control -- a phrase right out of academia, designed to hide the true extent of the matter and soften the blow to chancellors and presidents. This cheating goes right up to the top of higher education, where there is a yearly mad scramble among college administrators to gain position in a ratings game.
Suddenly, we find out what we have all suspected for some time: that some citadels of scholarly integrity aren't really. They have been embellishing the records they report to U.S. News & World Report and others who determine the "best" colleges and universities in America. The stakes are high. Making it to the top 50 or even 100 can improve an institution's attractiveness to applicants, and that translates into millions of dollars in tuitions and alumni donations.
The lid on this scam was lifted by Claremont McKenna College in California, the ninth-ranked liberal arts school in the nation. It has acknowledged it got there by falsifying the SAT scores sent to U.S. News, a former weekly news magazine that has become the leading judge of academic excellence. A spokesman for U.S. News was quoted as saying Claremont was the highest-ranked school ever to admit cheating, and a spokesman for Claremont said one official took the blame and has resigned. Are you surprised?
So do we now believe the validity of this exercise? Can students count on the findings as a guide to the best education? The truth is that they may or may not.
When one examines the rankings over the years, there are warning signs about accuracy. The Ivies dominate the top 20 along with a handful of other regulars; the rest, many of which are equally as good, get short shrift, with little hope of cracking that line up. Even surveys on such esthetics as campus attractiveness produce about the same results. Urban schools whose campuses are barely discernible in the downtown centers ranked high in non-academic value. And because peer-group evaluation is a consideration, professorial prejudices can taint the process.
What everyone should realize is that this is a commercial enterprise. U.S. News began its ratings years ago to keep up in the news magazine competition, where it ranked third behind Time and Newsweek. Americans love lists, and the magazine began devoting more and more effort to telling college-bound students and their parents which schools were the best in every aspect. Ultimately, it dropped out of the weekly print business altogether but maintains its name and viability with this enterprise.
Now with evidence that there is at least a germ of dishonesty in the ratings, U.S. News' credibility can be expected to suffer badly. This has been brought on by the institutions themselves, which salivate over high rankings or cringe over low ones that they may or may not deserve.
The only really accurate measurement of a college's standing lies in the success of its graduates -- and that depends, to some degree, on the collective pedigree and dedication of the actual teaching faculty, not just those high-priced big names that come to hunker down and do their own thing in a rarefied atmosphere.
Is the system corrupt? As much as it depends on total honesty, one would have to say yes.
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