When it comes to websites and publications that rank the nation’s colleges, educators and those who track the performance of higher education institutions advise students to be wary.
WhatWillTheyLearn.com launched its free website last year and is scheduled to hold a 10 a.m. news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., today to unveil its expanded and updated data.
The website is “a response to the dissatisfaction with traditional college rankings and the growing demand for universities to refocus on undergraduate education and values,” according to a news release issued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit group behind the website.
Today’s press conference will announce the expansion from the 125 public and private institutions listed on the website last year to 714 this year, including the University of Nevada, Reno and Nevada State College. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas already was on the website’s list when it was first created.
UNR President Milton Glick said there are many groups that rank institutions using different methodologies, and their value and credibility “is widely debated.”
Those rankings can be used as a means of accountability or an information source for students and their families, but Glick said they are no substitute for first-hand research and experience.
“It is best to take the time to really learn about a particular university, and it is especially important to visit the campus to come to understand the learning environment and campus personality it offers,” he said.
WhatWillTheyLearn.com grades colleges and universities based on whether they require students to take seven core subjects such as history, economics and composition, which the website describes as “an introductory college writing class, focusing on grammar, style, clarity and argument.”
John Minter of John Minter Associates, a research firm that specializes in benchmark performance d atabases for universities and colleges nationwide, said he was “floored” by the number of Ivy League and top-ranked institutions that were given an F or a D on the website.
“I was amazed to find (the University of California at) Berkeley got an F. Come on, come on, they probably require a knowledge of history and science at that general level before a student is admitted,” Minter said. “Admission requirements at those top universities may filter those requirements out, but this website doesn’t seem to recognize that.”
David Azerrad, senior researcher for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that is the point of the website—getting back to teaching core classes and providing students with a strong foundation of knowledge. He said WhatWillTheyLearn.com isn’t looking at a comprehensive assessment of an institution’s educational offerings, but whether it covers the basics.
“We are looking at a precise question,” Azerrad said. “Is Harvard a better school than the University of Nevada, Reno? We don’t know. But does the University of Nevada, Reno do a better job of covering the basics? The answer is yes.”
“And we know that parents are increasingly fed up with paying through the teeth for universities that don’t focus on undergraduate education,” he said.
Fewer than 5 percent of colleges and universities require students to take economics, and fewer than a third require American government or history, literature or intermediate-level skill in a foreign language, Azerrad said.
Minter said WhatWillTheyLearn.com has some interesting information, but he said it suffers from the same problem many other college-ranking websites do: oversimplification.
“The debate over what constitutes appropriate general education has been going on since Harvard introduced electives back in the late 1800s,” he said. “I don’t imagine that will end because most of the jobs that kids will have after they graduate don’t even exist now, so it’s a moving target.”
Paul Neill, director of UNR’s core curriculum, said WhatWillTheyLearn.com lists the Reno campus as not requiring literature or economics, but he said literature is covered extensively in the core program and several economics courses are included in the core social science curriculum.
“A well-rounded, challenging educational experience is fundamental to our role, particularly as a public university, in helping students become responsible, productive and participating citizens,” Neill said.
“It opens students’ eyes to a variety of perspectives, fosters critical thinking skills and allows them to grasp the complexity of experiences they will face,” he said. “These are the critical attributes in today’s workplaces and society.”
How UNR and other colleges ranked in 2009
To counter what is seen as a lack of a strong, basic education for undergraduates, WhatWillTheyLearn.com graded institutions on whether they require seven core subjects: composition, literature, foreign language, U. S. government or history, economics, mathematics and natural or physical sciences. Institutions that required six to seven core subjects received an A while those that only required one core subject received a D. The web site also lists colleges’ tuition costs and graduation rates.
University of Nevada, Reno: B
University of Nevada, Las Vegas: B
Nevada State College: B
Harvard University: F
University of California, Berkeley: F
University of Washington: F