Students & Parents | General Education

Does a college’s rank even matter?

HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  August 20, 2009 by Jeannie Kever

Just in time for a new school year, another round of college rankings is out.

The 2010 U.S. News & World Report rankings—the best-known in an increasingly crowded field—come out today, with Harvard and Princeton again taking the top two spots. Rice University is No. 17 again, this year as part of a three-way tie.

Another group released its own ratings Wednesday, hoping to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the U.S. News rankings but focusing on core curriculum and criticizing many of the schools at the top of the better-known list, including Rice. That group, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, gave three Texas Schools, including Baylor University, an “A” and Rice an “F.”

“To be honest, the trend in higher ed literature is not to put a whole lot of stock in college rankings,” said Sara Hinkle, associate dean for student and community development at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., and chair of a national commission studying the admissions and first-year experience at colleges around the country.

Still, she knows many people find them irresistible.

“Everybody likes to score well,” Hinkle said. “We’d all like to see ourselves at the top.”

Hofstra is ranked in the bottom half of national universities by U.S. News, and Hinkle said the results of any ranking need to be taken “with a grain of salt. When prospective students and families are researching schools, that can be a place to start, but I would never attend a school based just on the ranking.”

Conflicting scores

Rice spokesman B.J. Almond said Wednesday the school “appreciates the positive recognition” that comes from doing well in various rankings.

But he said the rankings, in themselves, don’t draw students to Rice.

“The rankings may complement our efforts,” he said. “The rankings reflect the quality of the education we’re offering.”

But Rice didn’t do so well in the latest entry in the rating game. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni launched Wednesday, grading more than 100 universities on whether students are required to take seven core subjects: composition, mathematics, science, economics, foreign language, literature and American government or history.

Seven schools earned an A, requiring at least six of the seven subjects. Three Texas schools—the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Baylor University—were among them.

Rice received an F. So did Yale—No. 3 on the U.S. News list—Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Berkeley, among others.

But wait. Rice is the top-ranked Texas school on most lists. It’s been in U.S. News’ Top 20 since 1988, when the magazine began using statistical data to calculate its rankings. It’s been No. 17 since 2005. This year it tied with Emory and Vanderbilt. UT is No. 47 this year; A&M is No. 61, and Baylor is No. 80.

So why such a low score by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni?

In its report, the conservative educational think tank said Rice scored poorly because students can test out of a required composition class and may fulfill the other requirements with more narrowly defined classes. Almond said he was unfamiliar with the group’s ratings.

Anne D. Neal, president of the council, said her group started with 100 schools and is adding more.

Different tiers

Being left out may be a mixed blessing. The University of Houston, for example, isn’t in the initial group. It is in the U.S. News survey but ranks as a Tier 4 school among national universities. (Only schools which rank in the top half of each category get a numerical rank; the rest are divided into Tier 3 and Tier 4 schools based upon their scores.)

Renu Khator, president of UH and chancellor of the UH system, said she doesn’t expect that to change soon.

For one thing, she said, it takes time to change a school’s reputation. Peer rankings account for 25 percent of a school’s score, with the rest determined by criteria including average SAT scores and graduation rates.

Dwayne Todd, dean of students at Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, and a member of the American College Personnel Association’s governing board, noted that ratings often don’t tell students and parents everything they need to know. But they can serve a purpose, he said.

“If reputation is very, very important to somebody, maybe the rankings are a good place to start,” he said. “If you’re more interested in quality, they’re not going to tell you that much.”


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